Crafting Scholarship: Titles and Keywords

by Robert Milardo, Ph.D., University of Maine
NCFR Report
Content Area
Robert Milardo, Ph.D.

Titles generally fall into two camps: those that include a literary element designed to attract a reader's attention, and those that are entirely descriptive and inform a reader of the purpose, variables or findings. As a title, The forgotten kin is an example of the former. By itself the title is intriguing and begs the reader to ask the question just who are these forgotten kin, and why are they forgotten? A more descriptive title (for the same work) might be Aunts and uncles and their relationships with nieces and nephews. The sense of intrigue is lost, but the content is immediately clear and the article is keyword rich which is important. [1] So: let's talk about the elements of really great titles mindful that we are not trying to win Booker or Pulitzer prizes; we are trying to write great social science for professional audiences.

Titles can suggest themselves at any time in the process of writing a manuscript and I often keep a running list of possibilities at the front end of the manuscript as I work on early drafts. A great title should be interesting and informative. Great titles give the reader a concise explanation of the subject of an article. Consider these examples. Which do you prefer?

  • The gender-equality paradox: Class and incongruity between work-family attitudes and behaviors. (Usdansky, 2011).
  • Financial strain and stressful events predict newlyweds' negative communication independent of relationship satisfaction. (Williamson, Karney, & Bradbury, 2013).
  • Mothers' attitudes about and goals for early adolescents' cross-ethnic peer relationships: A qualitative analysis. (Mount, Karre, & Kim, 2013).
  • Early family ties and marital stability over 16 years: The context of race and gender. (Orbuch, Bauermeister, Brown, & McKinley, 2013).
  • Can Johnson's typology of adult partner violence apply to teen dating relationships? (Zweig, Yahner, Dank, & Lachman, 2014).
  • Have authoritarian parenting practices and roles changed in the last 50 years? (Trifan, Stattin, Tilton-Weaver, 2014).
  • Pulling the strings: Effects of friend and parent opinions on dating choices. (Wright & Sinclair, 2012).
  • Connecting here and there: A model of long-distance relationship maintenance. (Merolla, 2012).
  • A little help from our friends: Informal third parties and interpersonal conflict. (Eaton & Saunders, 2012).
  • Between family and friendship: The right to care for Anna. (Nelson, 2011).
  • Locating multiethnic families in a globalizing world. (Trask, 2013).

All of these titles are effective, some more than others, and share a similar purpose. They briefly summarize the essential focus of the article to which they refer. In scanning a title, a reader should have a fairly good idea of the main topic including the major variables, the theoretical approach, and possibly the method and findings. References to a qualitative method, an analysis of census data, or a reference to a meta-analysis further alerts the reader to the author's purpose and means to achieving that purpose, and can be appended to the main title.

Titles may include a semblance of humor or literary style, but in referencing pop music, common idiom, or metaphor, a search of the literature for that particular phrase might suggest something more original is in order. Phrases like "with a little help from my friends," a reference to a Beatles tune, or "an embarrassment of riches," a common idiom used in the titles of articles, a novel, a history of Dutch culture, film, and several dramatic works, are frequently used and consequently tired. My advice: don't try to be really cool or clever or intriguing, just write a title that is perfectly descriptive and keyword rich. The majority of readers are not scanning the current issue of a journal looking for something interesting to read; readers come from a variety of disciplines, they are people who are searching a database with very specific keywords in mind. Without descriptive keywords they are less apt to find your article and less apt to recognize the relevance.

The titles noted above vary in subtle ways. For instance the first two are quite specific with the key variables included in the title. This is especially true of the second example where the core finding of the study becomes the title. There is little ambiguity about the subject of this work. Another example includes the qualifying phrase "A qualitative analysis," and another implies a longitudinal design. This is useful information for those readers who are particularly interested in such work.

Two of the titles are in question form and present the essential focus or research question without specifying any of the incumbent findings. Both titles work well in identifying the subject matter of their respective articles with some exception. In questioning change in authoritarian parenting practices and roles over the last 50 years, the title omits noting that the sample on which this work is based includes three cohorts of adults living in Sweden. This is an important fact, could easily be noted in the title, and would be helpful for those searching for material on Swedish families, for instance. Research questions can represent useful and keyword-rich titles, although I prefer titles that focus on findings.

The next three titles begin with implied metaphors: "Pulling the strings," "Connecting here and there," and "A little help from our friends." They pique interest and in each case once we read the second half of the title, we begin to understand the subject matter of the article. In this way, they are fine titles, but perhaps they are not the most useful.

Authors often rely on search engines to locate articles of interest, searches that are based on keywords linked to the article or included in titles or abstracts. When readers rely on keyword searches, literal titles based upon a variable language are most effective in facilitating a literature search, while titles that include metaphors, like "Pulling the strings," are unhelpful in facilitating a search. Where a metaphor is used in a title, authors need to be especially particular in selecting an appropriate set of keywords to accompany the article. When submitting an article to a journal, authors are asked to suggest keywords either on the title page or when prompted in a digital submission process. Submission portals like Scholar 1, which a number of journals use, or similar systems, permit an author to review a list of potential keywords and make selections accordingly. Because potential readers find work of interest through search engines that rely on keywords, it is in an author's best interest to select applicable keywords carefully and comprehensively and to include such keywords in the title.

The final two titles in our list are among the briefest: "Between family and friendship: The right to care for Anna," and "Locating multiethnic families in a globalizing world." They are suggestive of the subject matter but not terribly so. We cannot know from these titles whether the content represents critical literature review, theory, case study, or empirical work. The number of keywords represented in the first instance is two (family and friendship), and in the second instance one or possibly two (multiethnic families and possibly globalizing world). Incidentally, they are both quite interesting works; they would be better served, and more easily found by database searches with more informative titles that emphasize keywords that are representative of the subject matter.

There are some things you can avoid. Phrases like "a study of" or the equivalent are not useful and copy editors will often strike them. Titles in the range or 12 to 15 or fewer words are just about right. The examples noted above range from 7 to 15 words with the longer titles being more descriptive and therefore more effective (mean = 12 in case you're wondering).

In short, although subscribers may scan tables of content when an issue of a journal is first released, the primary portal of discovery is a search engine. Titles are best designed with this point of discovery in mind. The most effective titles are rich in keywords and center on the primary content or findings.

[1] This is an imaginary but realistic example based on the book The Forgotten Kin: Aunts and Uncles (2010, Cambridge). I wrote the first part of the book title because it sounds great to me, adds a bit of intrigue, and captures the sentiment of the book perfectly. The second part originally read: Aunts and uncles and their relationships with nieces and nephews. An editor thought it too long, perhaps it is but the intension was to be descriptive.

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