What’s in a title? Getting your paper read and cited

A large part of being human, is that we enjoy producing things. Being able to say “I did this” or “I made this” brings a sense of fulfilment. A belief that we have made a mark on the world. Maybe that’s why so many of us dream of becoming famous
growing up. Good artists are remembered for centuries. I dream of being a good scientist. Today, being a good scientist seems to

Illustration and featured image by Frits Ahlefeldt

mean publishing a lot of papers. Papers are the products of our careers, our art. I ask you though, when did you ever hear someone say: “He’s such a great musician, he released 300 albums last year” or “she’s such a talented artist, she painted 300 paintings last year”? My guess is: Never. We acknowledge them for that one song, that one piece of art that speaks to us.

On average, papers rarely get cited more than once. They drown in the masses. Easily forgotten. As an idealistic young researcher, who wants to make a change, this knowledge is quite disheartening. I therefore jumped at the chance to attend a workshop hosted by OIKOS last week, that promised to hold a few helpful tips.

How to get your paper read and cited.

I can tell you now, that there is no one way to do this. But on several occassions I found myself noting important differences between the senior scientists’ tricks of the trade and my own beginners procedures. Opinions led to interesting discussions and it will always come down to your target readers and the journal you try to publish in. Still, I will try and summarize what I took away from this workshop. The following is a method introduced at the workshop by Bill Snyder, professor at Washington State University and editor of Ecology. Accompanying it are my own thoughts and reactions.

15 steps to Abstract-centered writing

  1. Finalize all figures and analyses. Put figures into final, publishable format. Determine which figures go in main text, which figures go in online-only appendix.

This was definitely not the first step of my first paper draft, but much more so for my second. Creating good figures takes a lot of time, but it’s well worth it. If you can’t put figures together that tell a compelling story, then there probably isn’t one. Along with the title and abstract, your figures are the most important part of your paper. These three things are in all likelihood what will determine if your paper goes into the reject pile or gets passed on for review. With hundreds of papers a year to go through, editors usually don’t spend more than a couple of minutes on each. Furthermore, should your paper get published, readers tend to look first at the title, then the abstract, then the data (especially the figures) and if theyr’re still hooked, they read the whole paper. Again, I have to admit that for a long time this has not been how I read papers. Title and abstract yes, but in many cases I found it hard to understand the figures without reading the paper. Another point stressed by Bill, make sure your figures are clear enough to stand alone.

  1. Write out a 10 or so possible titles. Focus on generality, central message and novelty. Describe directionality of effects.

A title should be short, descriptive, attractive and honest. Whacky titles can work, but may not be taken seriously and should be used for “lesser data” papers. Question titles are usually applied when there’s no clear answer to be found, and may signal complicated content. If your paper has a strong conclusion/point, use this as the title, don’t frame it as a question. Whether or not you should include the scientific name of your study organism in the title depends on what journal you are submitting to, and how well the common name is known.

  1. Use title to determine appropriate journal.

Getting a paper into the right journal, with the right readers, can result in just as many (if not more) citations than getting a paper into a high impact journal. Does your paper’s angle fit with the journal you’re considering? A good title will tell you this.

  1. Format cover page to match journal expectations.

I assume this could be done at any step of the process. Whenever I format the cover page, I always feel like this is the beginning of something. It quickly becomes a source of m0tivation for actually buckling down and writing the thing. It also forces you to sort out the inital layout of author ranks.

  1. Choose keywords, stressing generality.

Keywords should be words not found in the title, they are meant to support the title so that more people will find your paper through a search engine.

  1. Write abstract. Abstract is a complete outline of the paper; when the abstract is done, the paper is done.

This was news to me. In fact, this entire method was novel. Up until now, I have considered the abstract a summary of the paper. Something that is written at the very end. Being able to write up your paper in 250 words before starting the paper itself makes sense. It’ll give you a clear sense of direction. As the next steps indicate, spending time on the abstract in the beginning will make the following writing process much easier. I used to start the writing process by writing up the Methods section, feeling like this was the clearest part. This meant that I for a long time, had absolutely no idea why I was writing the paper. Why it would be interesting to anyone except me. It also meant, that my paper kept changing direction as I found new interesting results to focus on.

  1. First three sentences of the Abstract outline the three paragraphs of the Introduction. The Introduction is funnel shaped, going from broadest point to your specific work.

The introduction should never consist of more than 3 paragraphs. Write for the reader. Say too much, and less gets understood. When I started writing up my first paper, I was definitely guilty of this. I tried to include everything I knew about the subject in the Introduction, essentially turning my original research paper Introduction into a Review.

Step 8-13 are helpful tips on how to build up a good abstract.

  1. Abstract sentence 1 explains the broad question you are addressing. This is the topic of your first Introduction paragraph. 
  1. Abstract sentence 2 guides the reader to the (somewhat) more specific, novel issue you will address. This is the topic of your second Introduction paragraph. 
  1. Abstract sentence 3 introduces your study system in light of the bigger questions. This is the topic of your third and final Introduction paragraph. 
  1. Next 3 (or so) Abstract sentences describe the key findings from each of your figures. 
  1. Second-to-last Abstract sentence describes the (somewhat) more specific, central finding of your study. The funnel broadens. This is the subject of the second-to-last paragraph of your Discussion. 
  1. Last Abstract sentence describes how your finding(s) move the field forward. Broadest funnel. This is the subject of your last Discussion paragraph. 
  1. Use the abstract sentences as the outline of your paper, filling in the details as you go.

For materials and methods, think about the flow and make sure following along is easy. For your Results section, always have directionality.For example, use the words “Increased” or “Decreased” instead of “Impacted”. Impacted how? It is easy to get lost in the statistics, making them the main focus of your paper. Always relate to your research questions and use statistics as a secondary way of backing up your findings.

  1. Fill in the earlier parts of the Discussion by explaining the significance of the data in each of your figures, generally with one paragraph per figure. Why is this important to someone that doesn’t care at all about your study system? Tie each key result to the broader literature.

Your discussion should not be more than 5 paragraphs. Start narrow and broaden it out. Your funnel is upside-down.

If anyone has other helpful tips for writing interesting papers, I’d love to hear them. I would also recommend the following paper:

Sand-Jensen, K. (2007) How to write consistently boring scientific literature. Oikos 116: 723727

From which comes my concluding citation:

‘‘Hell is sitting on a hot stone reading your own scientific publications’’ – Erik Ursin, fish biologist

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