by Chelsea Lee
You’ve burned through the midnight oil. You’ve written the last word, double-, nay, triple-checked the reference list, and as the sun clambers over the windowsill you face the last remaining question: What to call this work of staggering genius? You are tempted to play the facetious card and call your paper “A Study of the Effects of Red Bull on a Person's Ability to Form Coherent Sentences,” but the long-term implications of such a title for your academic success give you pause. What else, then, shall suffice?
The title of your paper is incredibly important. A paper’s title not only sets readers’ expectations for what the paper will be about but may also determine whether it gets read at all—or with how much trepidation versus excitement it is greeted.
Below are five general principles that, if followed, will produce a great title:
- A great title summarizes the main idea of the paper. Your title should identify the key issues under investigation as well as how they relate to each other. The title “The Effects of Transformed Letters on Reading Speed” achieves this goal, whereas the title “Transformed Letters and Reading Speed” identifies the elements but misses the relationship.
- A great title has a length of 12 words or fewer. If your attempts to create a summarizing title have produced a five-line manifesto, try to pare it down to the essentials. Keep in mind that 12 words is a guideline, not a hard ceiling.
- A great title includes only words that contribute meaning. Phrases such as “A Study of,” “An Experimental Investigation of,” or “The Results of” are like empty calories (not unlike most of what’s in that Red Bull). Make your title easier to digest by cutting the fat. “The Results of a Study of The Effects of Heavy Metal Music on Plant Growth” can slim down to “The Effects of Heavy Metal Music on Plant Growth” or even the jazzier “How Heavy Metal Music Stimulates Plant Growth.”
- A great title gives away the ending. If your title is in the form of a yes–no question, try rephrasing it so that the question is answered or the answer at least alluded to. This primes the reader for deeper comprehension. If Philip K. Dick had written for an academic audience, you might be perusing Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: Empathy in Nonhuman Species before bed tonight. (Click the image of the book cover at the right to read about his actual book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.)
- A great title says it with style. Academic writing must be precise, but it needn’t be fusty. Consider these titles of real published psychology articles: “The Unicorn, the Normal Curve, and Other Improbable Creatures” (Micceri, , Psychological Bulletin) and “Pride, Prejudice, and Ambivalence: Toward a Unified Theory of Race and Ethnicity” (Markus, , American Psychologist). These titles pique readers’ interest while also conveying essential information about the content of the article.
Armed with these principles, you are now ready to give your next paper a great title. You can also read more about titles in the Publication Manual in section (p. 23).
When you are searching for a research study on a particular topic, you probably notice that articles with interesting, descriptive research titles draw you in. By contrast, research paper titles that are not descriptive are usually passed over, even though they may be good research papers with interesting contents. This shows the importance of coming up with a good research paper title when you are drafting your own manuscript.
Why do Research Titles Matter?
Before we look at the characteristics of a good research title, let’s look at an example that illustrates why a good research paper should have a strong title.
Imagine that you are researching meditation and nursing, and you want to find out if any studies have shown that meditation makes nurses better communicators. You conduct a keyword search using the keywords “nursing”, “communication”, and “meditation.” You come up with results that have the following titles:
- Benefits of Meditation for the Nursing Profession: A Quantitative Investigation
- Why Mindful Nurses Make the Best Communicators
- Meditation Gurus
- Nurses on the Move: A Quantitative Report on How Meditation Can Improve Nurse Performance
Related: Ready with your title and looking forward to manuscript submission? Check these journal selection guidelines now! (Infographic)
All four of these titles may describe very similar studies—they could even be titles for the same study! As you can see, they give very different impressions.
- Title 1 describes the topic and the method of the study but is not particularly catchy.
- Title 2 partly describes the topic, but does not give any information about the method of the study—it could simply be a theoretical or opinion piece.
- Title 3 is somewhat catchier but gives almost no information at all about the article.
- Title 4 begins with a catchy main title and is followed by a subtitle that gives information about the content and method of the study.
As we will see, Title 4 has all the characteristics of a good research title.
Characteristics of a Good Research Title
According to rhetoric scholars Hairston and Keene, making a good title involves ensuring that the research title accomplishes four goals. First, a good title predicts the content of the research paper. Second, a good title should be interesting to the reader. Third, it should reflect the tone of the writing. Fourth and finally, it should contain important keywords that will make it easier to be located during a keyword search.
Let’s return to the examples in the previous section to see if they meet these four criteria.
|Title||Predicts content?||Interesting?||Reflects tone?||Important keywords?|
|Benefits of Meditation for the Nursing Profession: A Quantitative Investigation||Yes||No||No||Yes|
|Why Mindful Nurses Make the Best Communicators||No||Yes||Yes||No|
|Nurses on the Move: A Quantitative Report on How Meditation Can Improve Nurse Performance||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
As you can see in the table above, only one of the four example titles fulfills all of the criteria of a suitable research paper title.
Tips for Writing an Effective Research Paper Title
When writing a title in research, you can use the four criteria listed above as a guide. Here are a few other tips you can use to make sure your title will be part of the recipe for an effective research paper:
- Make sure your research title describes (a) the topic, (b) the method, (c) the sample, and (d) the results of your study. You can use the following formula:
[Result]: A [method] study of [topic] among [sample]
Example: Meditation makes nurses perform better: a qualitative study of mindfulness meditation among German nursing students
- Avoid unnecessary words and jargons. You want a title that will be comprehensible even to people who are not experts in your field. For a detailed list of things to avoid when writing an effective research title, check the article here.
- Make sure your title is between 5 and 15 words in length.
- If you are writing a title for a university assignment or for a particular academic journal, verify that your title conforms to the standards and requirements for that outlet. For example, many journals require that titles fall under a character limit, including spaces. Many universities require that titles take a very specific form, limiting your creativity.
Resources for Further Reading
In addition to the tips above, there are many resources online that you can use to help write your research title. Here is a list of links that you may find useful as you work on creating an excellent research title:
- The University of Southern California has a guide specific to social science research papers: dfknj.wz.cz
- The Journal of European Psychology Students has a blog article focusing on APA-compliant research paper titles: dfknj.wz.cz
- This article by Kristen Hamlin contains a step-by-step approach to writing titles: dfknj.wz.cz
Are there any tips or tricks you find useful in crafting research titles? Which tip did you find most useful in this article? Leave a comment to let us know!
- Hairston, M., & Keene, M. Successfulwriting. 5th ed. New York: Norton.
- University of Southern California. Organizing your social sciences research paper: choosing a title. [Online] Available at: dfknj.wz.cz
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