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Wilcox, Allen J.

doi: 10.1097/EDE.0b013e318210ab57

What should go into a title? There are no fundamental principles to guide us—but there are lots of opinions. BMJ requests that titles of research papers include the study design. Some collaborative studies try to boost their visibility by putting the study name in every title. There are journals that allow titles to be complete sentences, and others that forbid it. Journals wishing to inflate their impact factors might consider that long titles have been associated with more frequent citation.1 At the extreme, some titles can read like whole abstracts.2

At Epidemiology, we encourage short titles. But on what basis is that preferable, other than editorial whim? We can start by asking what titles are supposed to do. Is their purpose to announce the question? Give the result? Provide key words for search engines? Entice and amuse readers? These goals are not mutually exclusive, but they're not entirely compatible either.

At Epidemiology, the editors edit. We try to suggest ways to help our authors get their message across. Our authors usually agree, or they come up with better solutions themselves. Titles, however, are apparently more personal. Our editorial attempts to pare titles are often met with resistance. In matters of editing, we defer to the preferences of our authors if possible. Still, we are not always persuaded that what researchers want to provide as authors is what they like to see as readers.

Detailed titles may actually do a disservice. By loading a title with modifiers, authors can give the impression that their work applies only to a narrow set of conditions when, in fact, the results are more generalizable. (On the other hand, a convoluted title can be a clue to editors that the results really are narrow and limited.)

Authors who wish to make a good first impression at Epidemiology will be helped by a title that conveys their subject in a simple and direct way. Our model is a paper published by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953.3 The title was “Molecular structure of nucleic acids: A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid.”

If the most consequential biomedical paper of the last century could introduce its topic in 11 words, more epidemiologic papers might try the same.

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1. Jacques TS, Sebire NJ. The impact of articles titles on citation hits: an analysis of general and specialist medical journals. JRSM Short Rep. 2010;1:2.
2. Wiesinger B, Kehlbach R, Hemsen J, et al. Effects of magnetic resonance imaging contrast agents on human umbilical vein endothelial cells and evaluation of magnetic resonance imaging contrast media-triggered transforming growth factor-beta induction in dermal fibroblasts (HSF) as a model for nephrogenic systemic fibrosis. Invest Radiol. 2011;46:71–76.
3. Watson JD, Crick FH. Molecular structure of nucleic acids: A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature. 1953;171:737–738.
© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.