paper, thesis and book titles – think ‘key words’ and ‘the point’

We all know that it is now more important than ever to have searchable paper, (digital) thesis and book titles. So, as well as the key word list, titles need to use the kinds of words that will show up on googlescholar searches or searches of journal websites. We can think of titles as containing key words, that is, the words that will not only crystallise what it is that is in the paper, but also be easily recognised as such, and found.

Key words

And we all know what key words are. They are that tedious list that you have to write when you submit your article online right? Well yes.. . but key words are not just confined to the box marked ‘key words’. What you write in the box marked key words may not be the only key words that will be pick up by searches, titles may also be searched by themselves, and/or be part of online search algorithms.

Not all titles have  key words. The clever title for instance is probably amusing to the writer and the two other people who bother to read the abstract. However, a myriad of others have passed it over because they haven’t got a clue what it’s about. At best, an adroit pun or a riveting quote can only make half a title. The other half needs to leave the fickle browser in no doubt about what they are choosing. It could even be said in the case of titles, that in the age of online publication, boring and factual may well be what is needed.

In his discussion of what makes a good title, James Hartley emphasizes the need to attract, inform and be accurate. A title ‘needs to stand out in some way from the other thousands of titles that compete for the reader’s attention, but it also needs to tell the reader what the paper is about.’ (Hartley, 2008, p 23). Hartley categorises thirteen different types of titles, each with advantages and disadvantages (pp 23-25). These range from titles that announce the general subject or emphasise the methodology to those that attract by alliteration or using puns. He also reports on Soler’s (2007) examination of 570 titles in biological and social science articles, which distinguishes four types:

  • full sentence constructions, for example ‘Learning induces a CDC2-related protein kinase;
  • nominal group constructions, for example ‘Acute liver failure caused by diffuse hepatic melanoma infiltration’;
  • compound constructions (ie divided into two parts, mainly by a colon), for example ‘Romanian nominalizations: case and aspectual structure; and
  • question constructions, for example ‘Does the Flynn effect IQ scores of students classified as learning disabled?’.  (Hartley, 2008:26)

Soler’s analysis showed that the most popular type of construction in both the social sciences and sciences was the nominal group type, while questions were rarely used.  The full sentence construction occurred only in the sciences while the compound colon type appeared mostly in the social sciences.

So that’s all you need to know for a good title, right – key words and the usual construction. Well no, that’s only half the task.

The point

There is more to a title than accurate and informative key words. And your concern is not so much with the syntactic construction – it’s whether a title is not only searchable but also carries the point of the paper for both the reader and the writer. The point. What you want to tell the reader. Your take home message.

Take the topic of one of Barbara and my papers together – ‘The failure of dissertation advice books: Towards alternative pedagogies for doctoral writing’ (Kamler and Thomson, 2008). We have used key words which will come up on searches to make the title – doctoral writing, pedagogies, advice. But it’s Not Very Clever. No. You can bet we’d thought of others. But this title is not only accurate and informative about our content and contains our key words, it also puts them together to show the point of the paper. The first part of the title, before the colon, articulates our argument quite strongly (failure); the second part suggests we are offering something different (alternative pedagogies for doctoral writing). This is an unambiguous bid for the contribution we wish to make, albeit still moderated (towards). We are flagging up in our title what our paper will do – first of all we discuss advice on doctoral writing, arguing that it often doesn’t do what is required, and then we make a case for a pedagogical approach.

Arise paper, you now have a title

Arise paper, you now have a title. Go out in the world and do your work.

Getting clear on the point of a paper through working on the title can be very useful in early drafting. In our workshops, Barbara and I like to get people to work on the title quite early on. It often helps people to work out what the paper is actually, really about. So, for example, consider the change in this title as the writer moves from one early idea to the next:

Draft 1: The impact of ongoing classroom-based assessment within the university English Pathways Programs

Draft 2: Continuous assessment franeworks within university English Pathway Programs: Realizing formative assessment within high stakes contexts

The constant terms in both drafts are ‘assessment’, which is the topic, and English Pathways Programs which is the object of the writer’s research. But the relative position of these change as the writer gets clearer about his journal readership and his argument. So, in the first draft the focus is the EPP and how it is assessed. This signals a local evaluation. In the second draft a two-part colon structure appears.  Assessment in EPP Programs is placed before the colon, but a change is signalled by the term frameworks. It is the broader frameworks used in universities, rather than a specific program, which the writer is putting forward for consideration. After the colon he adds within high stakes contexts to signal his new argument. The changes are slight, perhaps, but we saw that they were critical to the writer clarifying his point of view for a specific higher education readership.

Barbara and I often find in our workshops that when a group of writers become familiar with one another’s evolving drafts and arguments, they can suggest more effective titles than the author. This kind of intervention can be particularly useful when the writer is still unclear or they feel diffident about naming their contribution.

This was the case for a mid career researcher in child and maternal health, who told us she was surprised that her research had not been taken up more widely in her field. An analysis of one of her titles suggests a reluctance to make her argument explicit to her readers:

Maternal alcohol consumption and diet, and initiation and duration of breastfeeding: Data from the longitudinal study of Australian children.

This title uses the two-part compound structure, but its most obvious feature is that it is descriptive and additive. It names a number of topics that have been drawn from the longitudinal study being reported, but there is no attitude or stance. Nothing is highlighted or made prominent; just added together with a string of ands. In the workshop she was running, Barbara suggested an alternate title to better capture the argument:

Maternal diet and breastfeeding: A case for rethinking physiological explanations for breastfeeding determinants

The key move here is from description to argument. The focus is sharpened in the first part of the title to two topics only: diet and breastfeeding. The second part is more assertive. The word case signals an argument will be made based on the data; while rethinking makes a critique and a claim simultaneously.

The writer was happy with this alternate title and adopted it, in consultation with her co-author, to whom she wrote after the workshop:

What do you think? This is what I was saying to people when I was explaining the poster at conferences last year – but I don’t think we’ve argued our point strongly enough here. This makes it a much more interesting paper and links it to our previous smoking and obesity work (and intention).

This kind of work on titles is worth the effort, for titles speak loudly and start the process of reader anticipation.

Revising titles

When revising titles we can therefore ask ourselves:

How well does the title signal my topic to my desired readers?

What are my keywords – are they easily searchable?

How assertively does the title signal the contribution I want to make?

Thus – How will this title signal in an online search the major point I am making and to whom?


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in argument, James Hartley, keywords, the point, titles and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to paper, thesis and book titles – think ‘key words’ and ‘the point’

  1. Pingback: paper, thesis and book titles – think ‘key words’ and ‘the point’ | Caroline+Kühn

  2. Pingback: talking ‘the contribution’ of a journal article | patter

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