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Title is the new abstract

There are an increasing number of scientific articles being produced and posted at a frantic rate. How can you make your paper stand out and be memorable amongst this plethora of publications? Moreover, if your work is conservation-related, how do you ensure that the people who matter see and remember your work?

The one part of your paper all readers see and read is the title. From my own experience as an editor of scientific journals, as well as from the page-view statistics I have seen, the percentage of people that go on to read your abstract is less than a tenth of those that read the title. The percentage that read beyond the abstract to look at the whole article is a tenth of that again.

This why I have entitled this blog “Title is the new abstract“. You want to maximize the amount of information in the title of your paper.

I’m going to use one of my grad student’s papers as an example. 

This is a typical title for a scientific paper:

Observations of dolphins using a focal group methodology

This title has told me little, apart from the methods used. At the best of times, hardly anyone reads the methods section of a paper (unless you are a reviewer or conducting exactly the same sort of research). There is a reason why an increasing number of journals put methods as supplementary materials; few people are interested and methods are often overly technical and boring.

Observations of dolphins in Bocas del Toro, Panama

This title is somewhat better. It tells you the location, at least, and it is less technical and might be more appealing to a broader audience, but again it tells you little.

Observations of dolphins in Panama in the presence of boats 

A bit better again. It offers more context and gives you the general region where the work is being conducted.

Observations of dolphins in Panama in the presence of whale-watching boats

Whale-watching is a specific activity and a type of tourism that has its own field of research. Having this phrase in the title helps when web searching for research on this topic. There are a lot of studies that are missed because the topic in the title is too vague, and not picked up in a key word search on Google or similar.

Observations of dolphins in Panama in the presence of whale-watching boats: is whale-watching sustainable?

There are two problems here – a lot of editors hate colons in titles, and they are frequently overused. Also the title ends in a question. It might entice the reviewer to look at the paper in more detail to find out the answer, but then again it might not.

Observations of dolphins in Panama in the presence of whale-watching boats suggests the activity is unsustainable.

This title gives some broad methodological information, location, a specific type of threat and a conclusion. If you read that title you will immediately have a snap shot of the entire study and know that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Observations of dolphins in Panama show feeding reduced in presence of whale-watching boats, suggesting the activity is unsustainable.

This is better again as it gives a key research finding and scientific evidence for why the whale-watching may be unsustainable.

Is Flipper floundering? Observations of dolphins in Panama show feeding reduced in the presence of whale-watching boats, suggesting the activity is unsustainable.

Some may argue that the addition of the “cutesy” Flipper question may draw attention to the article. But the alliteration could also distract the reader from the rest of the title. What would you remember about the title if you just got a glance at it? Probably the Flipper bit, not the actual conclusion. You have to balance attracting the reviewer with remembering the message.

That being said, one of my most popular papers had a Ghostbusters quote in the title.

So, in summary, try to keep your title concise, but be sure to summarize what you did, your main finding and your conclusion. If readers only ever read your title, make sure it’s memorable and that it tells them the most important things they need to know.

Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in projects on every continent. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing four of the International Marine Conservation Congresses (IMCC) (the world’s largest academic marine conservation conference) and two of the International Congresses for Conservation Biology. He was a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) for nearly a decade and also served two terms as the president of the SCB Marine Section. and he's currently on the Board of Directors of the American Cetacean Society, the Society for Marine Mammalogy and the SCB Conservation Marketing Working Group. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 140 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation and co-edited a book on marine wildlife conflict resolution.

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