How to Compose a Title for Your Research Paper

Posted on February 7, 2012 by

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Titling: A neglected, but important task for technical writers.

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As you craft a name for your paper, you should consider these potential objectives for the title you choose. A title should:

  1. Describe the content of the paper;
  2. Distinguish the paper from others on a similar topic;
  3. Catch the reader’s attention and interest;
  4. Match search queries so people will find your paper (and cite it).

#4 sticks out doesn’t it?  It seems obvious that #1 would be the most important objective for a title. But as search and electronic publishing becomes more and more important in research I’ve come to believe that the last point (search) may indeed be the most important. Think of it as SEO (search engine optimization) for your research vision.

The importance of research vision SEO

I’m sorry to say that I’ve attended more than one talk at an important international conference where someone else presented a paper exactly describing an idea I had published earlier. Whose fault is that? Well it was my fault. When I dug up my old paper I realized that the particular idea wasn’t reflected in the paper title at all. It was “buried” in the content.

Most people begin a research project with a comprehensive review of the literature. It is crucially important that they find your paper when they’re at the beginning of their research/writing cycle.  Assuming your work is good, if they find your paper early on, you’ll help them avoid reproducing your work, and perhaps encourage them to make use of your ideas as they go forward. And of course you’d like them to cite your paper as well.

A well crafted title is the best way to accomplish this goal.

How does one accomplish this with a title? The most important thing to realize is that long titles are OK. Don’t prioritize a short, snappy title at the expense of a full description. Make sure that your important claims are reflected in the title. Also, be sure to include the keywords that define the niche your paper occupies. Otherwise folks won’t find it.

Example: Suppose you’re a robotics researcher, and you’ve discovered that probabilistic pathfinding is far superior to earlier methods that depended on deterministic methods. You might choose a title like

Probabilistic Pathfinding: Beyond Deterministic Methods for Navigation in Rough Terrain

Note that we include both the old method ‘s name and the new idea in the title.  So folks searching for work using the old approach (deterministic) will also discover your new idea (probabilistic) when they might not have otherwise.

Making it catchy

It’s also useful to create a title that sticks with people. You might consider a few devices to help you there. How about a snappy name or acronym for your approach?

GRAMMPS: A generalized mission planner for multiple mobile robots in unstructured environments

Did you know that people actually prefer titles that contain a colon? Don’t force it, but if a two-part description of your paper fits well into an “idea:description” template, go for it:

Household robotics: autonomous devices for vacuuming and lawn mowing

What not to do

It’s probably a bad idea to choose a provocative title alone. For instance

What are the ants doing?

would be bad, but

What are the ants doing? vision-based tracking and reconstruction of control programs

is great because it is both catchy/provocative and also explanatory.

A few thoughts by others

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