Why do Research Titles Matter? And how do I choose that?
The title is the part of a paper that is read the most, and it is usually read first. It is, therefore, the most important element that defines the research study. With this in mind, avoid the following when creating a title:
- If the title is too long, this usually indicates there are too many unnecessary words. Avoid language, such as, “A Study to Investigate the…,” or “A Review of the….” These phrases are obvious and generally unnecessary unless they are necessary to covey the scope, intent, or type of a study.
- On the other hand, a title which is too short often uses words which are too broad and it does not tell the reader what is being studied. For example, a paper with the title, “African Politics” is so non-specific it could be the title of a book and could literally examine anything associated with politics in Africa. A good title should provide information about the focus of your research study.
- In academic writing, catchy phrases or non-specific language may be used if it’s within the context of the study [e.g., “Fair and Impartial Jury–Catch as Catch Can”]. However, in most cases, you should avoid including words or phrases that do not help the reader understand the purpose of your paper.
- Unlike everywhere else in a college-level social sciences research paper [except when using direct quotes in the text], titles do not have to adhere to rigid grammatical or stylistic standards. For example, it could be appropriate to begin a title with a coordinating conjunction [i.e., and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet] if it makes sense to do so and does not detract from the purpose of the study [e.g., “Yet Another Look at Mutual Fund Tournaments”] or beginning the title with an inflected form of a verb such as those ending in -ing [e.g., “Assessing the Political Landscape: Structure, Cognition, and Power in Organizations”].
Hartley James. “To Attract or to Inform: What are Titles for?” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 35 (2005): 203-213.
Structure and Writing Style
The following parameters can be used to help you formulate a suitable research paper title:
- The purpose of the research
- The scope of the research
- The narrative tone of the paper [typically defined by the type of the research]
- The methods used to study the problem
The initial aim of a title is to capture the reader’s attention and to highlight the research problem under investigation.
Create a Working Title
Typically, the final title you submit to your professor is created after the research is complete so that the title accurately captures what has been done. The working title should be developed early in the research process because it can help anchor the focus of the study in much the same way the research problem does. Referring back to the working title can help you reorient yourself back to the main purpose of the study if you find yourself drifting off on a tangent while writing.
The Final Title
Effective titles in academic research papers have several characteristics that reflect general principles.
- Indicate accurately the subject and scope of the study,
- Rarely use abbreviations or acronyms unless they are commonly known,
- Use words that create a positive impression and stimulate reader interest,
- Use current nomenclature from the field of study,
- Identify key variables, both dependent and independent,
- Reveal how the paper will be organized,
- Suggest a relationship between variables which supports the major hypothesis,
- Is limited to 5 to 15 substantive words,
- Does not include redundant phrasing, such as, “A Study of,” “An Analysis of” or similar constructions,
- Takes the form of a question or declarative statement,
- If you use a quote as part of the title, the source of the quote is cited [usually using an asterisk and footnote],
- Use correct grammar and capitalization with all first words and last words capitalized, including the first word of a subtitle. All nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that appear between the first and last words of the title are also capitalized, and
- Rarely uses an exclamation mark at the end of the title.
Subtitles are frequently used in social science research papers. Examples of why you may include a subtitle:
- Explains or provides additional context, e.g., “Linguistic Ethnography and the Study of Welfare Institutions as a Flow of Social Practices: The Case of Residential Child Care Institutions as Paradoxical Institutions.” [Palomares, Manuel and David Poveda. Text & Talk: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Language, Discourse and Communication Studies30 (January 2010): 193-212]
- Adds substance to a literary, provocative, or imaginative title or quote, e.g., “Listen to What I Say, Not How I Vote”: Congressional Support for the President in Washington and at Home.” [Grose, Christian R. and Keesha M. Middlemass. Social Science Quarterly91 (March 2010): 143-167]
- Qualifies the geographic scope of the research, e.g., “The Geopolitics of the Eastern Border of the European Union: The Case of Romania-Moldova-Ukraine.” [Marcu, Silvia.Geopolitics14 (August 2009): 409-432]
- Qualifies the temporal scope of the research, e.g., “A Comparison of the Progressive Era and the Depression Years: Societal Influences on Predictions of the Future of the Library, 1895-1940.” [Grossman, Hal B. Libraries & the Cultural Record46 (2011): 102-128]
- Focuses on investigating the ideas, theories, or work of a particular individual, e.g., “A Deliberative Conception of Politics: How Francesco Saverio Merlino Related Anarchy and Democracy.” [ La Torre, Massimo. Sociologia del Diritto28 (January 2001): 75 – 98]
- Identifies the methodology used, e.g. “Student Activism of the 1960s Revisited: A Multivariate Analysis Research Note.” [Aron, William S. Social Forces52 (March 1974): 408-414]
Tips for Writing an Effective Research Paper Title
When writing a title in research, you can use the four criteria listed above as a guide. Here are a few other tips you can use to make sure your title will be part of the recipe for an effective research paper:
- Make sure your research title describes (a) the topic, (b) the method, (c) the sample, and (d) the results of your study. You can use the following formula:
[Result]: A [method] study of [topic] among [sample]
Example: Meditation makes nurses perform better: a qualitative study of mindfulness meditation among German nursing students
- Avoid unnecessary words and jargons. You want a title that will be comprehensible even to people who are not experts in your field. For a detailed list of things to avoid when writing an effective research title, check the article here.
- Make sure your title is between 5 and 15 words in length.
- If you are writing a title for a university assignment or for a particular academic journal, verify that your title conforms to the standards and requirements for that outlet. For example, many journals require that titles fall under a character limit, including spaces. Many universities require that titles take a very specific form, limiting your creativity.Resources for Further Reading
In addition to the tips above, there are many resources online that you can use to help write your research title. Here is a list of links that you may find useful as you work on creating an excellent research title:
- The University of Southern California has a guide specific to social science research papers: http://libguides.usc.edu/writingguide/title
- The Journal of European Psychology Students has a blog article focusing on APA-compliant research paper titles: http://blog.efpsa.org/2012/09/01/how-to-write-a-good-title-for-journal-articles/
- This article by Kristen Hamlin contains a step-by-step approach to writing titles: http://classroom.synonym.com/choose-title-research-paper-4332.html