Dr John Harrison is Reader in Human Geography at Loughborough University and is Associate Editor of the Taylor & Francis journal, Regional Studies. Dr Harrison recently appeared on our Expert View of Journal Metrics webinar to advise Editors on how to maximize the impact of the research in their journals. One of the points he put forward to Editors was the importance of working with authors to improve titles and abstracts to bridge the gap between those looking at research and those reading it.
Advice on titles
- Short and snappy
Titles should be specific in stating what the original contribution of the paper is. The link might be associational rather than causal but it does appear that articles with questions in the title – where those questions suggest that the authors are tackling a big issue or a big topic – generate the most interest. Now you can also look beyond that: they may have some of the best science in them, but if you look at titles, shorter, snappier, eye-catching titles generally are more receptive and more engaging to more readers, particularly in the online age of social media.
- Don’t fade into obscurity
Titles must not be so obscure—song lyrics, for example—that search engines do not pick them up; however, they can work if they are attention-grabbing and in conjunction with a short subtitle which does specify key terms which search engines pick up. Improving impact requires improving visibility and quality. A famous lyric or quote in the title, for example, helps if it increases visibility and gets more readers to look at the work, but the same title also needs to ‘visible’ to the right audience (hence the point about keyword searching via Google) and demonstrate ‘quality’ (it cannot simply be a quirky title). The trick is getting this into a short, snappy title.
- Question the colon
Articles with a colon can often be trying to do the two parts above – eye-catching, attention grabbing and contribution to knowledge (before/after the colon). On the other hand, they are generally longer and wordier so there is a compromise to be had. The one to avoid is the next point.
- The curse of the case study
When we look at the titles of papers that have fewest citations or have the lowest number of downloads, many emphasise the case study – often as a subtitle (“evidence from X”, “a case study of Y”). If the case study is an exemplar in your field of research this can form an important part of the title, but more often, potential readers will be deterred if they have no interest in place X. My advice: if the case study is not essential, leave it out of the title. Remember, it will appear in the abstract and keywords so it is not lost from the reader altogether.
Advice on abstracts
- Turn ‘lookers’ into ‘readers’
Abstracts should very clearly guide the reader through what the paper. For a small investment, editors can make a key intervention here. As an editor I encourage authors to structure their abstracts to cover the following points in a clear, concise manner:
○ What is the debate/topic being investigated?
○ What is the current state of that debate?
○ What is missing/required from the debate to move it forward?
○ What is the research you are presenting here in this paper?
○ What is the original contribution of your research?
○ How will this advance/shape the debate?
- Avoid subheadings
Despite the bulleted points I have just written above, you might think I would be in favour of abstracts with subheadings; however, you would be wrong because I think the best abstracts are those which are written as a single, integrated paragraph. I find abstracts with sub-headings constraining and prescriptive. In fact, the very existence of abstracts with sub-headings points to a weakness in writing abstracts which editors and publishers are trying to correct by spelling out what an abstract should cover.
My point is this: if authors were consistently writing good abstracts, using sub-headings would not be needed. It is for this reason that I am much more in favour of allowing authors the creative freedom to craft their own abstracts, so long as within this the key information is covered. Sometimes this is not the case, which is where as editors I think it is both right to remind authors what the abstract should include, but where we can guide authors and add value to their work.