Your title: the public face of your paper [3/8]

Illustrates how to create a good title through an iterative process

Your manuscript's title is the first thing an editor sees. So make sure it grabs their attention and clearly communicates what the paper is about. Creating a good title is usually an iterative process. This post provides some tips and examples of what to include in the title and how to improve on your first attempt. It also provides some examples of "Title transformations" from the yearly writing bootcamp that I am running at Cumberland Lodge as part of our concerted efforts to create a supportive and collaborative culture at Middlesex University.


Obviously a title needs to be descriptive, not just for the editor, but also for future readers. They need to be able to find it when they search for articles on a particular topic. This means that ideally you would include the following:

  • The main concepts and/or research question
  • The country context if it is unusual
  • The research method if it is unusual

Some academics are tempted to omit the country or research method from their title as they think it might disadvantage their paper if it is not a mainstream country or research method. However, neither the editor nor the reviewers like suprises and omitting this information might actually lead to a more negative assessment. It is better to set their expectations from the start.

... or quirky? Try both!

Although descriptive is safe, a slightly unusual title combined with a descriptive sub-title might attract interest and make the paper more memorable. This might matter more after publication, but could still help to make the paper stand out in the review process. Some examples of how this might work.

  • My former PhD student Shea Fan studied the role of ethnic identity in relationships between host country employees and ethnically similar expatriates. Some of her article titles used a main title that referred to this phenomenon in an abstract sense through alliteration (The Benefits of Being Understood...) or wordplay (How you see me, how you don't...), making them more memorable.
  • In a paper reviewing the role of language differences in HQ-subsidiary communication, we decided to use a multi-lingual main title ("Hablas vielleicht un peu la mia language ...") - including Spanish, German, French, Italian and English words - to convey the article's key challenge. Be warned though that this might be a risky strategy. One of the reviewers commented: “there has been a mistake in the title as part of it is not in English”. S/he didn’t quite get the point...
  • In a paper discussing the role of expatriates in controlling foreign subsidiaries, I used an animal analogy ("Of bears, bumblebees and spiders...") to reflect direct personal control (an overbearing dominant bear), socialization (bumblebees spreading corporate culture through cross-pollination) and informal communication (spiders weaving webs of communication). This seemed to make the article stick in people's minds; I often had academics that met me for the first time say: “Oh, you are the lady of the bears, bumble-bees and spiders”. This inspired my co-author Ling Zhang to use a similar analogy in her paper on cultural identity negotiation: Of ostriches, frogs, birds and lizzards.

How to improve your title?

Once you have a draft title, try and get a few colleagues together and ask for their opinion. Do they understand what the paper is about? Working with academics from different backgrounds can really help you to sharpen the focus of your title and make it more attractive to a broader audience. You can return the favour for their paper; it shouldn't take more than 10-15 minutes per paper.

The bootcamp slides that can be downloaded here contain lots of examples of titles that were transformed through this process, but above and below are two examples by my Middlesex colleagues Parisa Dashtipour and Athina Dilmperi. They both managed to get past the desk-reject stage for their chosen top journal and their papers are currently in the review process. Of course this wasn't solely due to their changed title, but every little bit helps.

Some quick fine-tuning tips

  • Search for your title in Google Scholar. If you get many similar results, you might want to make it more unique.
  • If your title includes an independent and dependent variable, clearly indicate which is which.
  • Here is a list of some sleep-inducing empty waffle words to avoid. Between … and … also suggests a relationship between two concepts and is much punchier:
    • examining the relationship between …,
    • the effect of …,
    • the influence of …
    • towards a framework of …,
    • a comparison of …
  • Avoid using "towards a..." altogether, this suggests you are not quite there yet.

How to avoid a desk-reject?

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