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.” [1]

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.

Another example:

“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: recently rated the fishhook as one of the 20 most important tools in human history.

Friday, September 14, 2019

A sin to conclude?

A recent Nature Physics editorial highlights the importance of writing a clear and accessible paper that has a ‘story’. Thus, anything that does not directly add to the story should be either left out, or placed elsewhere (eg, putting details of certain methods or supporting data in Supplementary Information).

They include a few random but useful tips such as avoid clichés, use adjectives judiciously, and do not use the word ‘very’.

To the list of words to avoid I would add:

‘novel’ (almost every paper is describing something new),

‘remarkable’ (a subjective word, often mistakenly used in place of ‘marked’), and

‘paradigm’ (see article by Goodman in BMJ)

The editorial also suggests that conclusions are not always necessary. Quoting an article by Jonathan Shewchuk entitled “Three sins of authors…”, they say that if the conclusions repeat what has been said elsewhere in the paper, they are not needed.

According to the editors at Nature Physics, following the standard rule for presenting an argument in English of “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them” makes for a sloppy paper.

I do not agree. The key to writing a paper that convinces your readers lies in the way they will read and remember a paper.

The deluge of scientific papers means most readers develop an approach to reading articles that allows them to quickly assess whether they should read the whole thing. I will discuss this in a future post, but one of the first things I read is the conclusions of a paper to see if they justify reading the rest. It is a snapshot of the key findings and implications of the work, that I can read in 10 seconds.

Furthermore, a pithy conclusion distills your work into a single nugget of information that the reader is more likely to remember.

The conclusion should also give the key implications of your findings – what do they mean, where are they leading – in a single sentence. Thus, in two or three sentences your reader knows what you found, what it means and where it is going.

One note: avoid stating the obvious “more research is indicated” in the last sentence.

And finally, for a conclusion that quietly suggests the implications of the findings, it is hard to beat that of Watson and Crick’s 1953 Nature paper:

“It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

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