The fundamental currency of academia is publications–their quality, number, and citations. This makes sense, as basically your job as a scientist is to plant some infectious memes–hypotheses and evidence that are so compelling that people start using them. Yet as we have easier and easier access to more and more literature, just getting your paper noticed is the first and most crucial step. And that begins with the title. Why?
1) First impressions matter. A lot. Spend some time with Malcom Gladwell’s Blink (you might first want to check out Wikipedia’s summary). We human’s appear to make many of our decisions quickly, without conscious thought. Now, picture yourself at the end of a long day skimming down the latest table of contents from, say Ecology. How many times are you telling authors “thanks, but no thanks” based on a 0.5 s gander of their wares? More importantly, what in a title makes you stop and consider a moment?
2) The 50/50 rule of headlines. This would be a good time to chat with a professional writer. Copyblogger has a great post noting the common wisdom of journalists, who, face it, write for folks riding the subway to work. An easily distractable bunch. Their job is to catch folk’s attention. Journalists argue that you should take 50% of the time you spend writing an article on crafting the headline.
3) The 80/20 rule of headlines. The common wisdom in the j-biz is that 80% of the folks may read your headline, but only 20% will even begin the article. Apply this now to you, yes you, skimming journal titles. 80/20 sounds rather generous, doesn’t it? Mayyyybe more like, 40/5? So now that I hope I’ve convinced you that the title is the first, crucial, link toward someone reading your work, how do you write a good one? We’ll begin that discussion today with two practical pieces of advice.
4) Write for search engines… The initial idea at the dawn of search engines was to add key words to your title. And to some extent this is still true–when we are skimming TOC’s we are searching for words related to our own work. When we read search engines results, however, we have already left some of that heavy lifting to Google. Then its up our own human judgement which of the hits for
fish amphibian predation food web mesocosm NOT Werner
we will spend our precious time on. Add to that, search engines are searching abstracts (and sometimes whole articles) not just titles. So yes, add some keywords, but focus on specific key words really aimed at the folks you want to see the paper.
5) …but write for humans most of all. We’ve all had the experience of going through long lists of titles that seem little more than search engine phrases linked with passive verbs. The head swims. So let’s return to the underlying premise of the 50/50 rule: if you write something catchy, provacative, and true, you’ll attract the attention of your customers: your colleagues. Perhaps the best example of this in ecology is Dan Janzen’s Why Mountain Passes are Higher in the Tropics, a paper that could just have easily been titled, Ecoclimatic correlates of organismal distribution, and its implications for speciation in hyperdiverse regions. Dan Janzen is a masterful writer, and it begins in his titles.
So, when you’re finishing your next paper, spend an hour writing 5 very different titles that mix keywords and style (quality=design*content). Print them out on a sheet of paper, and do some customer research among the folks in the office.
The one they choose, is the one you choose. And that’ll get more folks reading your abstract. More on that soon.
Any other tips for titles? Or, just as important, what makes you cringe when you see it in a title?
I’m going to print this out and give as “an interesting article” to my graduate advisor. I’ve been unsuccessfull at presenting a conclusive argument for why we need better (and more interesting, and less verbose) titles. Thanks!
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Great post, I have been waiting for that!?!