June 2011

How to write top-flight manuscript titles


General advice and specific pointers for authors submitting manuscripts to journals.  

Pick up any newspaper or magazine, and one of the first things you’ll notice are the headlines. Copy editors put a great deal of time and care into developing just the right combination of words to synthesize the facts of stories, to echo the tones of the writers and to entice readers to immerse themselves in the tales that are about to unfold on the page. In scientific publications, titles carry the same importance, only the manuscript author must act as both article composer and title writer extraordinaire. That’s a pretty big undertaking, given that scientists aren’t likely to frequent workshops on top-notch title writing or masterful wordsmithing. 

Whether you’re a born poet or still a relatively clunky scribe, crafting a compelling title for an article takes creativity and concentration. I should know: I’m a recovering newspaper copy editor and have written more headlines than I can count. So when it was suggested that I provide some tips on how to write slam-dunk titles for scientific papers, I huddled with the editors of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s journals and the society’s chief multimedia communicator to come up with some general advice and specific pointers for authors submitting to the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Molecular and Cellular Proteomics, and the Journal of Lipid Research.

Alphabet soup

“Clarity trumps just about everything else,” says Ralph A. Bradshaw, co-editor of MCP. Indeed, the consensus is that the greatest challenge authors face when crafting titles is communicating complex ideas clearly in a small space. 

Perhaps feeling constrained by mandated word or character limits, many well-meaning but misguided authors resort to loading titles with acronyms, which can result in what editors of all walks have dubbed derisively “alphabet soup.” Here’s a somewhat soupy example: “ABC activates DEFG1 channels via HI2K-LMN-OPQ-RST3/4 signaling pathway.” (Note: The acronyms in this story have been changed to protect the innocent.) “The simple rule is this: Don’t use them,” Bradshaw says. 

But he and the others acknowledge that even best practices are contingent upon multiple variables. JBC Editor-in-Chief Marty Fedor says she agrees that use of acronyms should be minimized, but she adds, “There are good arguments for not banning them completely, including their usefulness as indexing and search terms.” 

If you simply must use an acronym in a manuscript title, make sure that it is one that has been deemed acceptable by the publication to which you are submitting. The JBC, for example, has a list of approved acronyms on its website for this very purpose; a panel of editors has determined that those on the list are understandable for researchers across the discipline. 

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  • Good write up/advice

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