How to Title a Research Paper
The title is the beginning and end of your research paper. It’s the first line that your readers will encounter and the last line that you should write. You can think of your title as a handle for your paper: a short, clear, searchable summary of your scholarly intervention. This micro-summary should be designed to show up on as many Google Scholar and JSTOR searches as possible, to maximize your paper’s chance of being cited. On the other hand, your title should sound professional and polished to all the readers of your paper, according to the norms of your field. STEM and social science titles look different from humanities titles, and this blog will begin by describing their stylistic differences. Then, I will offer some simple steps to title your research paper in clear, searchable language at the end of your drafting process.
If you’re writing a research paper in the humanities, you’ve probably noticed that most of your secondary sources have titles that follow a common pattern. Almost all of the titles in English and History that I’ve seen published in the 21st century are composed of a short, quippy phrase + a colon + a longer phrase summarizing the paper’s context. Here are a few of my favorites:
“‘Love to learn your book’: children's experiences of text in the eighteenth century” by Evelyn Azripe and Morag Styles (2004)
“Queens of the Garden: Victorian Women Gardeners and the Rise of the Gardening Advice Text” by Sarah Bilston (2008)
“The Juvenile Enlightenment: British Children and Youth During the French Revolution” by Kathryn Gleadle (2016)
These titles are strong for a couple reasons. Most importantly, they avoid confusing jargon, which often clogs up the longer explanation after the colon in titles following this style. Instead, they engage with freqently searched key words from adjacent subfields: British history, European history, feminist studies, reader reception, the history of science, children’s history. Kathryn Gleadle’s title, for example, uses the words “Enlightenment” and “French Revolution,” which may appeal to scholars outside her niche field, children’s history. By clearly engaging with the subfields of French history, Enlightenment history, and British history alongside with her main specialty, Gleadle is inviting a wider, more intellectually diverse community of scholars to consider her article—and it is an excellent paper, well worth a read.
While Gleadle’s title is loaded with searchable terms and stylish, according to the norms in history journals, many papers that follow the quip-colon-contex titles are too long and full of jargon. If you choose to write a paper according to the quip-colon-context model, do not use it as an excuse to include fluff words. Eliminate repetition, superfluous adjectives, and adverbs in your titles. If you want to practice editing a title to make it more concise, try rewriting “Queens of the Garden” to eliminate repetition. If you’re feeling creative, revise it without the colon.
STEM & Social Science Titles
While social science paper titles sometimes follow the humanities' quip-colon-context model, the authors of quantitative papers more often use long phrases full of jargon for their titles. These jargon-laden titles are essentially strings of search terms, attempting to attract advanced readers. However, sometimes these titles are so long and grammatically incorrect that they sound like nonsense, even to specialists.
If you wish to include jargon in your title, my best advice is to choose two or three obscure terms at most. Then, combine them with more accessible key words from your paper. Otherwise, you risk alienating early-career readers and scientists from different fields. As a final step, read your paper title aloud to a smart colleague in a different subfield. If they do not understand what your paper is about from your title alone, revise it to include simpler language and clearer grammar. You may also want to adapt the humanities’ quip-colon-context model to suit your needs. Try combining two jargon terms + a colon + a simple explanation of your paper’s topic in lower-level (yet frequently searched) key terms.
How to Draft a Title
How should you decide what key terms to include in your title? And when will you know if your title is clear and searchable? Just follow these steps:
To choose your key terms, print out a copy of your paper, and sit down with a highlighter. As you read your work, highlight any words that you frequently use to describe the phenomenon, processes, person, or period most important to your paper. In both humanities and quantitative papers, these terms should appear in your introduction (hypothesis or thesis) and your conclusion or discussion. Choose 4-5 of these terms and write them down in your notes.
Type these search terms into JSTOR or Google Scholar and see which generate the most results. Choose 2 or 3 to feature in your title.
Once you’ve selected your key terms, about the context of your paper. What broader fields does your work contribute to? Emulate Kathryn Gleadle’s exemplary title, which signals that her paper contributes four adjacent subfields: children’s history, British history, French history, and Enlightenment history. List the fields to which your paper contributes in your notes.
Use your searchable key terms and list of fields to write one sentence describing your paper’s main contribution. You might want to save this sentence and use it in your abstract.
Edit this sentence down, deleting filler words, until it is a phrase or quip+colon+context.
Read the phrase aloud to a couple intelligent friends in the fields that you listed. If they understand your phrase and agree that it would catch their attention, you have a title!
If you would prefer to read through your paper and identify its key terms or field with a subject specialist, reach out to CRI. A Research Mentor will be happy to discuss your research and help you come up with the perfect title.