On the LSE Impact of Social Science blog this week, was an interesting post by Patrick Dunleavy on choosing a better title for your article - ‘Why do academics choose useless titles for articles and chapters? Four steps to getting a better title’.
Dunleavy believes that an informative title for an article or chapter maximizes the likelihood that your audience correctly remembers enough about your arguments to re-discover what they are looking for and that without embedded cues, your work will sit undisturbed on other scholars’ PDF libraries, or languish unread among hundreds of millions of other documents on the Web. He illustrates his point by presenting examples of frequently used useless titles and advises on using a full narrative title, one that makes completely clear your argument, conclusions or findings.
Now that we’re in the assessment period for the next REF exercise (likely to be REF2020) we need to focus on personal publication strategies which Julie blogged about earlier this month in the post ‘Strategic approaches to getting your work published’. One of the key tips for writing and publishing a journal article is all about getting the title right. This post shares Dunleavy’s key messages and advice:
1. Consider Alternatives
Look seriously, critically and comparatively at a range of possible alternatives. Make a resolution not to be too vague, general, or convention-bound in choosing what words to use. Try and think things through from a reader’s point of view: How will this wording be interpreted by someone scanning on Google Scholar? What will attract them to click through to the abstract?
Generate a minimum of 10 possible titles and print them out on a sheet of paper for careful consideration. Compare these alternatives with each other and see if recombining words from different titles might work better. Type your possible titles as search terms into Google Scholar or subject-specific databases and see what existing work comes up. Is this the right company you want to keep?
2. Link-up the title and content
Look at whether your title words are picked up in the abstract of the the article or chapter, and in the internal sub-headings. It’s a good sign if the title, abstract and sub-headings all use consistent, linking, meshing or nesting concepts and vocabulary. It’s a very bad sign if the title words and concepts don’t recur at all in the abstract and sub-heads, especially if these other elements use different, rival or non-synonymous concepts or wording from the title.
3. A Full Narrative Title
Consider using a full narrative title, one that makes completely clear what your argument, conclusions or findings are. Narrative titles take practice to write well. And they rarely work at the level of whole-book or whole-report titles. But they are often very effective for articles and chapters. e.g. ‘New Public Management is Dead — Long Live Digital Era Governance’ (full example in original post).
4. Provide some narrative cues
If you reject a full narrative heading, this compromise solution is to at least provide some narrative cues in your title, some helpful hints or signs for readers about the conclusions you have reached or the line of argument you are making. If you have an empty box or an interrogative title already, then ask, how can I make this more informative? So: ‘For Mill, should giving women the vote precede or come after implementing ungendered education?’ does not quite tell us your answer. It hints at a potential difficulty, but it does not yet tell us how you think that Mill addressed it.