Mark Johnston is the Editor-in-Chief of GENETICS and Professor and Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at University of Colorado School of Medicine.

You slave over writing your paper, trying to make sure that the introduction sets up a compelling story, that the results provide clear and convincing evidence for your conclusions, and that your discussion of what it all means makes sense. You and your co-authors edit relentlessly, passing the manuscript back and forth, improving it with each round of tweaks.  When you realize the returns are diminishing, you decide the paper is ready to submit for publication.

But wait: what’s the title? You quickly write down what the paper is about — “Studies on the chemical nature of the substance inducing transformation of pneumococcal types: Induction of transformation by a desoxyribonucleic acid fraction isolated from Pneumococcus type III” — head to the journal’s submission website, dash off a cover letter, upload data to Dryad and FigShare, and click the submit button.

The first thing the editor reads is the title. She scratches her head and moves on to the abstract and cover letter to learn what the paper is about. She sees that it looks interesting and potentially significant, so she invites an expert to review the manuscript. He sees the title, scratches his head, and moves on to the abstract and cover letter to learn what the paper is about. He realizes there might be something interesting there, so he agrees to review it. The paper receives good reviews and eventually gets published. A reader comes across the title in the journal’s table of contents. He scratches his head and moves on to the next title.

Some say the abstract is the most important section of a paper because it’s the part that most people read and is widely available. But an even greater number of people will lay eyes on the title. A carefully crafted title can attract readers to your paper; a difficult or dull one is likely to turn them away.

It seems obvious that titles should be clear, concise, and compelling, but I admit to sometimes not having taken them seriously enough with my own papers. After all, titles should be easy to write:  they’re just a handful of words. But I became hyperaware of the importance of interesting, inviting titles once I started helping put together the Table of Contents for GENETICS each month.  I now frequently give authors suggestions for improving their titles to increase the impact and readership of their papers. Here are a few suggestions for composing titles that I’ve come up with along the way:

  1. Don’t bury the lede. Start with the topic of the paper, not with the name of the gene or organism you studied. A title such as

    “Fibulin-1 interacts with type IV collagen and antagonizes GON-1/ADAMTS in shaping the C. elegans gonad”

    is unlikely to attract potential readers who don’t know what Fibulin-1 and GON-1/ADAMTS are (which is almost everybody), and “type IV collagen” will generate interest in only the most special of specialists.  Something like

    “Shaping of tissue architecture in the C. elegans gonad by interactions among fibulin-1, type IV collagen, and the ADAMTS extracellular protease”

    is more likely to snare a reader because the first thing she sees is “tissue architecture”, which sounds like an interesting topic. A title that begins with

    “The C. elegans transcriptional regulators LIN-15A and LIN-56 interact and function redundantly……….”

    will attract readers interested only in C. elegans, and even among them the only ones likely to look at the abstract are those who know something about LIN-15A and LIN-56. Put the specific stuff as far into the title as possible, after you’ve hooked the reader with terms of more general interest. Better yet, leave the specific stuff out if you can.

  2.    Entice the reader. Make what you learned seem exciting (I assume you, the author, think it is exciting).

    “Transcriptome and Genetic Analyses Reveal that Abc1 and Def2 are Required for Glucagon Secretion”

    could become

    “Glucagon secretion requirements revealed by transcriptome and genetic analysis of glucagon-producing cells.”

    Readers are more likely to look at your paper if the first thing they see makes them think it will offer some insight into an interesting topic, rather than just some analysis of a bunch of data.

    “A novel method of genetic selection in yeast identifies the DNA binding site of NGFIB”

    entices the reader with the prospect of learning about a new, possibly innovative method.  By contrast, the real title of the paper—

    “Identification of the DNA binding site of NGFIB using genetic selection in yeast”

    —seems to offer (yawn) just another binding site.

  3. Avoid jargon. Jargon is hard to avoid in technical publications, but you should do your best to purge it from the title.

    “FLP-21/NPR-1 Signaling and the TRPV Channels OSM-9 and OCR-2 Independently Control Heat Avoidance in Caenorhabditis elegans”

    is better as something like

    “Regulation of Heat Avoidance in Caenorhabditis elegans by Peptide Signaling and Transient Receptor Potential (TRP) Channels.”

    Jargon turns off the majority of readers, who may not be familiar with the specialized terms. Avoid unnecessary abbreviations and acronyms too.

  4.    Be concise. Readers have a limited attention span. Instead of

    “The Maize Zea mays stunter1 Mutation Causes a Reduction in Gametophyte Size, Has Maternal Effects on Seed Development, and Reveals that Endosperm Development is not Essential for Early Embryo Development”

    try something like

    “Effects on gametophyte development in maize of a maternal effect mutation in stunter1.

    Thirteen words are more digestible than 30. In fact, most readers are unlikely to read past about a dozen words before their eyes wander away from your title.

  5.    Don’t give away the ending. Some authors treat the title as a one-sentence abstract, but I think that’s a mistake. The purpose of the title is to entice readers with the question under investigation so they’ll want to read more, not to tell the whole story. Don’t give the conclusion of your story in the title. So,

    “MCM-related precondition gene mei-218 inhibits lig4-dependent repair and promotes checkpoint activation during Drosophila meiosis”

    might be better as

    “Multiple barriers to non-homologous DNA end joining during meiosis in Drosophila.

    That makes me want to read on to learn what the multiple barriers are. And the declarative verbs that came into vogue among molecular biologists in the 1970s should be avoided, in my opinion.  Titles such as

    “The Type VI Secretion TssEFGK-VgrG Phage-Like Baseplate Is Recruited to the TssJLM Membrane Complex via Multiple Contacts and Serves As Assembly Platform for Tail Tube/Sheath Polymerization”

    gives me the impression that I’ve just learned all I want to know about the paper. Leave the reader in some suspense, wanting to read on to see how the story ends.

Keep these suggestions in mind when you’re composing titles of your papers and I expect you’ll increase the impact of your publications. If Oswald Avery had done so, his paper (whose title is in the 2
nd paragraph above) might have been titled

“Desoxyribonucleic acid as the carrier of heredity”

which might have brought a wider readership, and—who knows?—maybe the Nobel Prize he deserved.

Footnote:  I thank various GENETICS authors for donating their titles in progress (TIPs) to this post.

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