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Titles for Scientific Research Papers: Part I, What Goes into a Title?

Often, after conducting research and preparing a paper, authors feel confused about how to write a title. They feel tempted to include everything they know about the topic. Titles may be complex in valid ways such as this recent actual title: Chiral Silver Phosphate Catalyzed Transformation of ortho-Alkynylaryl Ketones into 1H-Isochromene Derivatives through an Intramolecular-Cyclization/ Enantioselective-Reduction Sequence. However, we want to look at what types of information belong in a title, to know how to keep a title short or long, and what pitfalls to avoid.

Titles can be compared to headlines. Newspaper headlines use “The five W’s and H,” or concentrate on “who, what, when, where, why, and how.” For example, in the title shown above, the title tells what is used and what is happening (silver phosphate is being catalyzed) and how that happens. The who part would be the author’s names that are on the title page with the title, and other information is not needed in the title. That is, when, where, and why are not important in this case. However, we will look at how the five W’s and H can be used to write a good title.

Who? For most scientific work, the who is, “Who is the author of this paper?” However, for some areas of research the who may be people or groups of people the author(s) have studied. For example, Prevalence of High Body Mass Index in US Children and Adolescents, 2007–2008 tells who was studied, when the study was done, where the study occurred, and what was studied. The why and how were considered less important and not mentioned.

What? The most important aspect of a study is what the research addressed such as The earthly paradise: religious elements in Chinese landscape art. This title mainly tells what was studied, although one can tell where the artists came from, a little about who they are), although we have no idea of how or why they painted, or when the artwork was done.

When and where? Japanese concepts of child development from the mid-17th to mid-19th century gives the reader an idea of when and where this study addresses, as well as tells about the who and what, but we begin to see a pattern. Why and how are less often discussed in titles.

Why and how? Why do continents break‐up parallel to ancient orogenic belts? How do carbon nanotubes fit into the semiconductor roadmap? Sometimes, the five W’s and H can become part of the title. A researcher asks a question in a title that implies the article will provide an answer.

As you might have guessed, we will now consider how you can choose a good title for your study. Scientific research may cover a broad array of fields from sociology and economics to physics and biochemistry. For our purposes, we will assume our author has done some field research, collected and analyzed data, and prepared a paper with an abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion section. Those are mentioned here for a reason. Each has the potential to provide information for a title. The abstract should be the best source because it should create a miniature paper and have those same discussions. The introduction within the abstract should tell why the paper is important. The reader will want to know how the data was collected and what the result were so those should be covered there too. The results and their importance should also be covered in the abstract. The question becomes, “How can I condense this paper down to a single sentence, phrase, or question?”

I’m going to take a biological study as an example. A rare bird, the Scaly-sided Merganser, winters in Jiangxi Province in east central China. Four Chinese scientists conducted field surveys in an attempt to discover how many individuals of this species lived along the rivers in this region. They did an excellent job of answering the questions in their title, using some of the five Ws and H. By reading their title I can understand where they studied the birds and what they studied, when they conducted their field surveys. They do not say why they chose this species (probably because it is rare), who did the study (their names are in the title), or explain how they did the study, but the reader can guess the why and who and probably knows they used field studies as part of the how. They chose a good title: Wintering distribution and population size of scaly-sided Merganser, Mergus squamatus, in Jiangxi Province. I might have added “, China” but they published in a regional journal rather than for a global audience. However, if I was publishing in Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (formerly known as Sida), I would have added “China” because that particular journal publishes for a global audience who might not know where Jiangxi is.

Next time, we will get a little more specific and look at how to write a good or a bad title. What makes a good title? What are the pitfalls to avoid? For example, the first title listed above is a real published title, as are all titles in this article. However, even though I’m a professional editor, it reminds me of my experience when I first read scientific journals in college. I looked at a few papers and thought, “This isn’t even English.” Many journals today state they want authors to write for a general audience, people who are knowledgeable and have a solid educational background, but who are not specialists in the field of study for a particular research paper. Your readers many not have your specialized interest, but they probably are well-read and educated, so you will want your titled targeted at a fairly general audience in many cases. As a biologist, I know what phosphate is, I can understand that catalyzing something will transform it and I know that several words in that first title deal with chemicals even if I cannot draw the chemical formula for a ketone. Next time, we will take some real titles, paraphrase them so we don’t hurt any author’s feelings by changing the topic so it is no longer recognizable, and talk about how you can choose a good title and how to make it nice and concise.

After all, the very first thing a reader and a journal reviewer are likely to see is your title. You want to sell your paper to the journal to get it published. We want to start out with a good first impression.

(Please retain the reference in reprint:

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