The first thing we read when we see an academic article is its ‘title’. The attention span of readers has been going down steadily, not because the academic content has somehow taken a downward tumble – but because the other digital content we consume has become more and more catchy. It isn’t uncommon to find people skimming through articles and learning as much as they can from the title. Thus more than anything else, it is the title that should deserve maximum attention while writing an article. Unfortunately this doesn’t always happen.
Take any speciality/general academic journal and go through the titles of articles published in any journal and you are apt to find the symptoms of ‘Titulus Insipidus’ – the malady of bland and boring titles . [checked one item off my bucket list. I always wanted to coin a term ;-)]. One might wonder why a researcher would deliberately choose a boring title when a more interesting title is possible.
Why does this happen?
There are perhaps a few reasons why this might happen
- Title may not be a conscious choice – the writer defaults to the first idea that strikes him/her. This happens more often than we might think
Certain disciplines are more rigid in following conventions and the young researcher often learns the tricks of the trade by mimicking the articles in the most popular journal of his field. This encourages conformity and discourages experimenting with stylistic choices.
The idea that offbeat titles are just a gimmick and a way to sell poor content
SEO :Experienced writers are well aware of the need for search engine optimization. This is just a fancy way of saying that your article should be easy to find. As Google’s PageRank algorithm is one of the world’s most closely guarded secrets, any recipe for such search engine optimization is only an educated guess. However in a recent paper, the authors argued that since longer titles and abstract are more search engine friendly and have more ‘hooks’ for the computer, they tend to show up in a search query in the first page or so.Since most people don’t go beyond the first page of search results for their information needs, this creates a situation where writing long and stodgy prose is actually advantageous! This unintentional, but perverse system of discentives might dissuade one from sticking to simple titles.
To give an example, “Aggressive serpentine movement in a controlled aviation environment: A descriptive study” is more likely to be noticed and cited than ‘Snakes on a plane’!. However for regular readers of a journal, the click rates may be higher for the latter.
Assesment of catchiness – learning from dating apps
The essential question is then – how to manage the tradeoff? Should the title be informative or interesting? How does one decide which article is interesting? I chanced upon a recent web app called Papr in R/Shiny by JT Leek. The idea is similar to the dating apps like Tinder. The web app collects information on whether the title is exciting and correct by directly asking the users. A random selection of articles is used. You can even download your likes.By analyzing the characteristics of the likes, one can get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Sadly this is for bioArxiv not PubMed. (Making one for pubmed will be my personal project for Feb 2017)
Disclaimer: Your mileage might vary depending on a lot of factors.
Here are some tips and tricks you can use while titling your next article. I believe these are more important for case reports or small research studies. Titling is neither a science nor an art. It is actually a craft. Hence it can be learnt by anyone who is willing to learn.
- Remember that titles signal intent. It can be serious, engaging, challenging or even frivolous. Ask yourself if the title adequately captures your intent.
- Get away from your comfort zone – if you have been using a colon in all your published work, get rid of it. Think of a way to say the same thing without a colon. A question, a claim or an unexpected term can be used.
- Breach the boundaries of your discipline. Just for the heck of it, visit a hard science journal – mathematics, physics or chemistry. I promise that you won’t regret those two minutes.
- Impose a Twitter like character limit on yourself. Don’t use more words than is absolutely necessary.
- Take the first title that comes to your mind. Promise yourself that you won’t use it. Actively think of alternatives. If the alternatives all seem to be bad choices, then(and only then) use the original title.
- Visit your favorite journal. Scan the page for titles you like. Pause and ponder – why did you like a particular title? What was so interesting about it?
- Identify the titles that didn’t interest you in the same journal. Attempt an improvement onf those titles.
- Cut yourself some slack – there is sometimes no option but to fall back on the predictable and time-tested approaches. Bide for your time – after all in the larger scheme of things, titles are but, only a small piece of the puzzle. Your academic reputation is far more important and for that no amount of intellectual circus with titling will help. Focus on the science and the good things will follow . Acche din will come soon 😉
Feel free to give your comments and suggestions below.
- Kpaka S, Krou-danho N, Lingani S, et al. Relation between online “ hit counts ” and subsequent citations : prospective study of research papers in the BMJ. 2004;318(September):3-4.
2. Weinberger CJ, Evans JA, Allesina S, et al. Ten Simple (Empirical) Rules for Writing Science. PLOS Comput Biol. 2015;11(4):e1004205. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004205.
3. Letchford A, Preis T, Moat HS. The advantage of simple paper abstracts. J Informetr. 2016;10(1):1-8. doi:10.1016/j.joi.2015.11.001.