Sunday, November 18, 2019
Baiting the fishhook (or how to write a title)
The title and abstract of your paper may be the only thing your readers, including the journal editor, will read as they navigate through the sea of scientific literature. So you need to catch their attention. Your title should be like a fishhook loaded with wriggling bait.
One journal editor said: “If [the title and abstract] sink an editor’s interest, the rest is history. Make them stimulate the reader to want to know more.” 
Nature also emphasises the importance of the title in their online section titled How to write a paper:
“Titles need to be comprehensible and enticing to a potential reader quickly scanning a table of contents, while at the same time not being so general or vague as to obscure what the paper is about. We ask authors to be aware of abstracting and indexing services when devising a title for the paper: providing one or two essential keywords within a title will be beneficial for web-search results.
To bait the title of your paper with squirming juicy word worms, make sure it is:
Short and sweet. Avoid unnecessary phrases such as:
“A study of …”
“A report of a case of …”
“An investigation into …”
Active. In the active, not passive, voice. The active voice (where the subject acts) is usually shorter, more direct and more precise than the passive voice (where the subject receives the action), making it better for a title of a paper. Although the passive voice has long been encouraged in scientific writing because it may be perceived as being more objective, many journals now recommend you use the active where possible to keep things clear and brief.
Understandable. The title should not be too general nor too specific. The readers you want to attract should be able to catch the central message of your paper with a quick glance at a table of contents.
Full of keywords. Your readers will find your paper through a web-search, database or indexing service using keywords in the title and, to a lesser extent, the abstract. So stuff your title full of keywords. Lorna Berrett has written a good short guide to optimising your paper for search engines, with some examples of well-optimised titles and abstracts. She notes that “people tend to search for specifics, not just one word e.g. women’s fiction not fiction.”
So when choosing keywords, think about which words you would use to search MEDLINE/PubMed or Google Scholar for your paper.
MEDLINE/PubMed, the place most people will probably look for your paper, indexes articles using a controlled vocabulary called “MeSH” or Medical Subject Headings. You can search these terms using the MESH browser to identify words that the NLM may use to index your paper. Or look at the MeSH that papers on similar topics have. When you get the article on PubMed, choose ‘Display > Medline’ and look at the words listed under ‘MH’.
Here is an example to illustrate these suggestions:
“The effects of SU11248 on human tumor xenografts; an in vivo study”
This title is in the passive voice, and does not tell the reader anything about the results. If rewritten as:
“Oral sunitinib inhibits growth of human tumor xenografts”
Then it tells the reader the key result – that this agent was active. In addition, the generic name of the agent has been used, because this appears higher than SU11248 in the heirarchy in MeSH.
“Development of a real-time reverse transcriptase PCR assay for detection of type A influenza virus”
could be rewritten as:
“A real-time RT-PCR assay for influenza A virus”
In this shorter version, I checked the MeSH term for ‘reverse transcriptase PCR’, and found that the abbreviation can be used.
A search of MeSH for ‘type A influenza virus’ showed that it is actually indexed as ‘influenza A virus’. I confirmed this by searching PubMed for each of these terms. ‘Type A influenza virus’ appears only 150 times, whereas ‘influenza A virus’ is used in almost 15,000 papers.
Some unnecessary words have also been removed. This briefer version can be read in a glance, but still retains all the important information. It will also probably be more easily indexed, and therefore easier to find in a search.
So, your title and abstract should be written to be bright shiny lures that will tempt an editor to bite, and draw readers in to learn more.
But perhaps my angling metaphor is not so appropriate: Forbes.com recently rated the fishhook as one of the 20 most important tools in human history.