To build good titles, break down a few

August 11, 2009 at 1:29 pm 1 comment

If you’re feeling unsure about what makes an effective title, one useful strategy is to find ones you like, analyze them and then try to emulate them.

To get you going, here are a few recent titles that I like:

  • Quantitative analysis of mechanisms that govern red blood cell age structure and dynamics during anemia
  • The role of anorexia in resistance and tolerance to infections in Drosophila
  • Integrative analysis of transcriptomic and proteomic data from Desulfovibrio vulgaris: A non-linear model to predict abundance of undetected proteins

What do these titles have in common? They use simple (but not simplistic) words, avoid acronyms completely, and keep jargon to a minimum. They are grammatically correct and well structured, making for easy reading. They are also specific and unambiguous. For example, the first title names the research subject (red blood cells), what was studied (cell age structure and dynamics) and the larger context (anemia). And in the third: Desulfovibrio was the research organism, transcriptomic and proteomic data were studied, and the problem was finding undetected proteins. After reading these titles, I feel like I have a good grasp of the papers’ contents.

What these titles don’t do is preview the main result. Here are three that do:

  • Rapid response of a marine mammal species to Holocene climate and habitat change
  • The circadian clock in Arabidopsis roots is a simplified slave version of the clock in shoots
  • Circadian clock genes contribute to the regulation of hair follicle cycling

Titles like these that make a statement don’t necessarily work for every paper, but they can be very effective at getting people’s attention. And that’s an important function of a title, of course: to get your paper noticed. So, in addition to being clear and concise, you want to make your title as broadly appealing as possible, without overstating things.

For example, “Circadian clock genes contribute to the regulation of hair follicle cycling” is a good, descriptive title. However, upon reading the paper, I learned that hair follicle cycling occurs on much longer time scales than the approximately 24-hour cycles normally regulated by the circadian clock. In other words, say the authors, “While circadian clock mechanisms have been implicated in a variety of diurnal (daily) biological processes, our findings indicate that circadian clock genes may be utilized to modulate the progression of non-diurnal cyclic processes.”

Thus, the authors might have tried to incorporate the study’s larger significance into the title, as in “Circadian clock genes contribute to the regulation of a non-diurnal biological cycle in mice.” While my title may not be the best alternative (for instance, it assumes people will know the circadian clock normally regulates diurnal cycles), it does offer a way to prevent people from reading “hair follicle cycling” and thinking, “so what?”


Entry filed under: Parts of the paper.

A few quick tips for writing titles Don’t get stopped by writer’s block

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Paul Ebert  |  September 28, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    The title above that refers to anorexia in fruit flies may be a good way to catch attention, but it is likely to represent a serious distortion of the underlying science. It is notoriously difficult to arrive at an unambiguous clinical definition of a human behavioural disorder. Applying the name of the behavioural disorder to a related situation in flies likely confuses rather than clarifies the associated science.


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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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