A few quick tips for writing titles

August 4, 2009 at 1:46 pm 1 comment

If there’s one part of a paper that hundreds or even thousands of people will read, it’s the title. And if your title is good, they may read further. So, what makes a good one? A good title tells readers exactly what your paper is about in the fewest possible words. But achieving this isn’t easy, so let’s look at some guidelines and examples.

Avoid abbreviations
Consider this title from a recent Bioinformatics paper: “Complex discovery from weighted PPI networks.” While many scientists in the authors’ field likely know what PPI stands for, remember that this title could be read by thousands of others. That’s why a better, more informative title avoids the abbreviation: Complex discovery from weighted protein-protein interaction networks.

Be specific
Often, authors achieve brevity at the expense of clarity and specificity. For example, in “Complex discovery from weighted PPI networks,” what does the word “complex” mean? I read it first as an adjective, that is, as “complicated” or “multifaceted.” But a quick look at the paper reveals that the authors are referring to protein complexes. Thus, a less ambiguous title would be: Protein complex discovery from weighted protein-protein interaction networks.

I also learned from reading their introduction that many methods exist for predicting protein complexes from PPI networks. So, it’s possible the word “weighted” isn’t sufficient to differentiate the authors’ new algorithm. Thinking about how to do this in a small number of words might be another way to make this title more useful to the reader.

Here’s another example: Neural basis of cold-seeking behavior in endotoxin shock. Not only does this sound a tad strange (i.e., like endotoxic shock is exhibiting the behavior), but it also doesn’t say anything about the model that was used (rodents? monkeys? people?). To me, “cold-seeking behavior in rats with endotoxin shock,” is much more informative — and it only adds two words.

Use good syntax (word order)
This rule can be easy to break when you’re trying to be brief, so take care. For example: “Comparative toxicity of fumigants and a phosphine synergist using a novel containment chamber for the safe generation of concentrated phosphine gas.” In this structure, it sounds like the phosphine synergist is using the chamber to generate gas. The problem is easily fixed, though, by rearranging the sentence and substituting a different word for “using”: Comparative toxicity of fumigants and a phosphine synergist during the safe generation of concentrated phosphine gas in a novel containment chamber.

How about this title: The environmental dependence of inbreeding depression in a wild bird population. While it contains no outright errors, the order of the words makes the meaning hard to grasp. A better title might be “Inbreeding depression in a wild bird population varies with environment” or something similar, so long as the confusing phrase “environmental dependence of inbreeding depression” is removed.


Entry filed under: Parts of the paper.

Taking the bite out of criticism To build good titles, break down a few

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Paul Ebert  |  September 28, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    It’s kind of cool to see a title of one of my manuscripts selected as an example of crappy scientific writing. “Comparative toxicity of fumigants and a phosphine synergist using a novel containment chamber for the safe generation of concentrated phosphine gas.” The title was an attempt link two separate items in a way that limited the likelihood of a sense of discontinuity. The fumigation chamber could have been described in the absence of the biological data and vice versa. I suspected at the time that a bit more weight was required to actually get the paper published. Now that it is published the Occupational Health and Safety Office at my university is happy and I can simply refer to the paper in all of my subsequent papers without having to describe the instrument. While my title suggests that the synergist is carrying out the experiment, that possibility is clearly ludicrous. Your suggested alternative title, while very clear, does not actually describe the content of the paper. Oh, well.


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Science of Scientific Writing

This article describes what readers expect when they read - and how scientific writing often violates those expectations.

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