Mar 16, 2022

How to Title a Manuscript for Journal Submission

Wordvice

Researchers and readers are first introduced to your journal article through its title and images. Think about when you browse social media, news sites, or online magazines. What makes you stop skimming and encourages you to read the content? The captivating title or a cool image, of course! The same principle is true for journal database–your journal manuscript or research paper title will immediately alert the reader to what your study is about and help them decide whether to continue reading.

Although we provide tips for labeling your legends and step-by-step instructions for writing the perfect manuscript title based on your own research in separate articles, this post provides more in-depth information on different title formats for different types of articles, how title length and some other factors might influence how well a title does in terms of attention and citation rates, and what should be avoided to create good titles for research papers. In particular, we will cover the following:

  1. Which title formats you could use for your journal article.
  2. What information you should include in your titles.
  3. How long your journal manuscript title should be.
  4. Whether you should “have fun” with your title.

The following is a summary of our recommendations for how to craft the best title for your journal manuscript. This step can be completed while you make an outline for your paper, during the drafting, or during the manuscript editing and proofreading process, while you are preparing your work for submission to journals.

As with all other information you receive about preparing journal articles, please remember to consult your target journal’s guide for authors and survey recent works published by your target journal to understand its editors’ stylistic preferences.

What Title Formats Are Best for Your Journal Article?

In the infographic above, we briefly point out the pros and cons of various title formats. Below, we provide you with further details about specific title structures and some real-world examples, for reference.

Before we dive into the various title categories, we’d like to explain our approach in preparing this overview. James Hartley conveniently classifies title formats into 13 categories, which we have adapted and re-configured into five types, after conducting our own survey of the most recent and most popular articles on major journal publication sites such as Elsevier and Springer. We have also examined papers that analyze recent trends in manuscript title structure and have incorporated our findings into this post.

Below are tables that outline each title type’s key characteristics (preferred grammatical structures and information to include), specify the article types that commonly use each title format, and list relevant sample titles from major academic publications. Where we do not list any title examples by article type, such formats are highly uncommon for this article category.

Finally, while we recognize that each journal has its own article types, we have broadly sorted published papers into the following groups:

  • Rapid response and short communication (e.g. letters and corrections): Early communication that highlights significant recent findings, new methods, software, or correspondence aimed at correcting or clarifying original research papers (usually published online only).
  • Research paper: An article that discusses details of recent original projects, including their data, results, and findings.
  • Review: A paper that summarizes recently published developments on a topic, without adding new data.
  • Clinical case: A research paper specifically focusing on clinical research.

Now, let’s look at these formats in more detail.

1. Titles that communicate the general subject

Key characteristics:

  • Phrases, mainly composed of nouns, that clearly communicate the overall subject matter.
  • These titles use keywords from abstracts to optimize search engine results, without exceeding the average title length.
  • Avoid taxonomic terminology as they’ve become less popular in recent years.
  • Don’t use obscure words since titles that incorporate such words tend to have less impact.
  • This format is common for reviews, research papers (including clinical cases), and rapid responses.
Article typeExamples
Research papers
Clinical cases
Rapid responses and short communication
Reviews

2. Titles that point to a specific subtopic of a general subject

Key Characteristics:

  • Phrases, mainly composed of nouns, that clearly state the overall topic, followed by a colon (or other non-alphanumeric characters) and the subtopic. This structure is highly common for clinical cases, research papers and reviews.
  • recent study by Butar and van Raan notes that this format is widely used in many disciplines and that not using this format could even negatively impact your paper’s citation frequency. However, the authors also suggest that using colons in fields that rarely use this structure won’t impact citation frequency—and some other studies found the opposite pattern. The use or absence of a colon alone can therefore not predict how effective a title will be.
  • 70% of the most referenced medical papers use colons.
  • An alternative title structure consists of a noun phrase or clause, with no colon. These titles can indicate an examination of a general topic through specific variable(s) or test subject(s).
  • Fewer PLOS articles using this structure were downloaded and cited.
  • An alternative title structure consists of a noun phrase or clause, with no colon. These titles can indicate an examination of a general topic through specific variable(s) or test subject(s).
Article typeExamples
Research papers
Clinical cases
Rapid responses and short communication
Reviews

3. Titles that state your study’s findings

Key characteristics:

  • A full sentence highlighting key findings or the study’s significance.
  • Some journals may discourage or prohibit declarative titles (some medical publications, for example).
  • Be careful to avoid misleading declarative statements. Instead, carefully think about which action verbs you can include without distorting the logical conclusions that can be drawn from your data. For example, if our article’s title is “How to Guarantee Your Paper’s Publication,” we’d certainly be misleading you, since the data and research we’ve reviewed only imply, rather than prove, certain correlations between these formatting tactics and publication success.
  • In a related subset of title types, authors do not directly state the findings. Instead, they suggest the solution to their study’s main question. This type usually states the overarching idea, followed by a colon and a general description of the finding and its topic. Alternatively, though rare, authors can use a question to foreshadow answers in the text.
Article typeExamples
Research papers
Clinical cases
Rapid responses and short communication

4. Titles that state the methodology used

Key characteristics:

  • A typical title states the general topic, followed by a colon and a summary of the methodology used in the research; however, the reverse order can also be found.
  • These titles can also utilize a noun phrase, without a colon.
  • Passive verbs may be included with prepositions such as “by,” “via,” “through,” and “with” to indicate the applied method.
Article typeExamples
Research papers
Clinical cases
Rapid responses and short communication
Reviews

5. Titles with emotional appeal or wordplay

Key characteristics:

  • These titles should generally be avoided because wordplay usually involves cultural references that non-native speakers (or even native speakers from a different cultural background or a different research field) may not understand. Nonetheless, this type of title is often found in review articles in the social sciences.
  • Though not featured in this post, editorials and other journal-solicited content often use question titles or feature wordplay.
  • As you may notice, few clinical studies or research papers use this format. However, you may occasionally find wordplay titles in reviews and short correspondence.
Article typeExamples
Reviews
Rapid response and short correspondence

What Information Should You Include in Article Titles?

Given the academic community’s digital dependence, titles and abstracts should be optimized for search engine algorithms. Yes, even scientists must know a bit about SEO! However, be wary of including too little or too much information in your title.

If a title is too general, it may be misleading or irrelevant to many readers’ needs. If a title is too specific, editors may believe your paper has limited appeal to the journal’s readership. Remember that editors are concerned with maximizing their journal’s impact by targeting a wide range of readers. Therefore, strike a good balance between specificity and broad applicability.

Another factor to consider is what happens when your paper advances to the peer review phase. Reviewers receive limited information about your paper when evaluating your research. If your title is too specific, a reviewer might not feel inclined to review the paper because he or she might not think the study fits within his or her specialty. In turn, if editors must send out multiple rounds of invitations to obtain enough peer reviewers, the editors may feel that your paper might not be a good fit for their journal, or simply reject your paper because they’ve become frustrated and want to move on. Yes, editors are normal people, too!

How Long Should Your Journal Manuscript Title Be?

While there’s rarely an absolute requirement for title length, the traditional length varies significantly from one discipline to another. The typical recommended length is 10-20 words. An upper limit might be 30-35 words, because a long title might reflect problems with your research or your ability to succinctly convey information.

In practice, mathematics-related academic papers generally have shorter titles (~8 words) compared to, for example, medical papers, which have longer titles. However, titles of highly cited papers seem to be shorter overall. Intuitively, longer titles can be difficult to digest, and might indicate that the author cannot clearly communicate his or her results. If a reader can’t understand your title, they’re even less likely to read your paper!

On that note, we also discourage highly dense noun phrases. Although the article entitled, “A chromosome conformation capture ordered sequence of the barley genome,” was recently published in Nature, it is a mouthful! Now, imagine if that title had been longer. Just don’t do it.

Finally, journals may strongly recommend certain title lengths or grammatical structures based on data from their most cited articles, so please double-check your target journal’s guide for authors.

Should You Use Wordplay or Puns in Titles?

Unlike titles you commonly find in newspapers and magazines, the academic community is less colorful in crafting their articles, and for good reason. Researchers peruse their journal subscriptions for information relevant to their fields. If your title doesn’t sufficiently explain your study’s content, your paper will likely remain unread.

Several authors who have recently surveyed manuscript titles observed that published works have increasingly incorporated wordplay and questions into their titles, despite a strong tradition discouraging this practice. This trend is likely a byproduct of individualization amidst the digital explosion in the academic publishing world. Certainly, such titles have helped authors gain more visibility. Recent review articles published in prestigious journals, like Cell, have featured puns. Maybe once your research has been accepted to a prestigious journal, no one cares how you title it!

However, because certain biases remain regarding the value of works that use these tactics, manuscripts with witty titles “may have lower impact and be cited less, despite being downloaded more.” This doesn’t mean you should test the waters–unless you are absolutely certain that your intended audience (and that includes your target journal’s editors and potential reviewers) is homogeneous enough to understand your attempt at being funny.

Summary: The Dos and Don’ts of Drafting Research Paper Titles

When creating titles, keep in mind the following:

Should I use full sentences in a title?

  • In general, avoid full sentences because they are excessively wordy. If you use a full sentence, strip the title to essential nouns and strong active verbs, and make sure your verbs are accurate. If your data is not definitive, for example, add modal verbs like “could” or “may.”
  • Social science research papers rarely use full-sentence titles.
  • Life science research articles often have nominal and full-sentence titles.
  • Review papers rarely use full-sentence titles; most use nominal groups or compound titles.

Should I include questions in my title?

  • While on the rise, titles that incorporate questions are still present in less than 10% of all published articles. They are becoming more common in the social sciences than life sciences.

Should I include subtitles in the title?

  • One of the most common title structures, either “general + subtopic” or “topic + method” can be used.
  • Social science papers favor compound construction.

Should I get proofreading for my journal manuscript or research paper?

  • An easy way to ensure that your paper is NOT published quickly is to allow grammar and punctuation errors to remain, along with unnatural sentences and awkward jargon.
  • Receiving paper editing and manuscript editing from a professional proofreading and editing service like Wordvice alleviates any concern that your paper will be rejected on ground of language and objective errors. After all, we guarantee 100% language accuracy through proofreading–your paper will be completely free of objective errors or will be re-edited at no extra charge. Free English editing certificate included.

Additional Reading

If you want to read more original research on how the structure and format of titles correlates with the impact of publications, then have a look at these articles:

  1. Hartley, James. Academic writing and publishing: a practical guide. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
  2. Milojević, Staša. “The Length and Semantic Structure of Article Titles—Evolving Disciplinary Practices and Correlations with Impact.” Frontiers in Research Metrics and Analytics2 (2017): n. pag. Web.
  3. Hartley, J. “New ways of making academic articles easier to read.” International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology1 (2012): 143-160.
  4. Hays, Judith C. “Eight Recommendations for Writing Titles of Scientific Manuscripts.” Public Health Nursing2 (2010): 101-03. Web.
  5. Jamali, Hamid R., and Mahsa Nikzad. “Article title type and its relation with the number of downloads and citations.” Scientometrics2 (2011): 653-61. Web.
  6. Nature Blog: http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2016/12/16/making-headlines-choosing-the-best-title-for-your-paper/.
Our Academic Editing Services