A journal article by any other name…



I just finished renovating the slide deck for my most popular and famous writing workshop “Write that journal article in seven days”. I’ve delivered this workshop nearly 80 times of the last six years with a slide share deck which has now had over 110,000 views. I’m so practiced at this workshop that I can walk in and deliver it with no preparation, which is a good thing for a busy person.

Over the years I’ve refined my ideas on the topic of writing productivity. Some of the slides have always worked better than others and (to be honest) it’s needed a refresh for a few years, but, like I said – busy. Luckily, this weekend, I ran a Thesis Bootcamp with a group of students who were unusually happy. Instead of doing academic advising I spent a lot of time noodling around my office, rearranging my books, doing the filing and digging in to my long term ‘to do’ list.

I’m glad I did get around to working on this particular slide deck because I was able to add a lot more stuff on article titles. You see, the title of your paper (or chapter for that matter) can be a really good place to do some high level thinking. A good title can help you decide the direction you want to take and data you need to collect.

I got this idea from the book ‘Mapping your Thesis’ by Dr Barry White. White claims there are kinds of paper title: questions, explorations, statements, investigations, hypotheses and thesis. Writing the title first is a way of working backwards from a desired outcome in order to decide what kind of data you might want to collect and what kind of analyses might be appropriate.

Let’s say that my son, Thesis Whisperer Jnr, now aged 14, wants to write a paper to convince me to let him play more computer games. He could try the simplest strategy of writing the paper title as a question: “Is Kerbal Space Program more educational than Team Fortress?”. This title implies would be measuring and comparing the relative merits of one program against another. This paper might convince me of which program is a better use of his time, but not whether or not he should spend more time gaming.

He could, instead, pose the paper title as an investigation: “The online gaming platform Steam: which games are kids are playing most?”. This paper might give me some background information on what other parents allow their kids to play, but since I’ve never really cared what other parents do, it would be unlikely to sway me to let him have more game time.

If Thesis Whisperer writes the title as an exploration of the topic of gaming it might be more persuasive. He could try a title like: “The educational outcomes of kids who game a lot”. He would then have to define ‘educational outcomes’, perhaps by means of an indicator like grade point average. He could test this idea further by writing a paper with a hypothesis as a title: “If kids game they will get better grades”. I’d imagine this would be some kind of controlled study where he measured the outcomes of one group of kids who gamed with another group who didn’t.

I like a bit of data to inform my parenting decisions.

If the results of these two papers showed there was a measurable effect of gaming on grades, he could follow up with another paper title posed as statement; something like “Kids and gaming: the benefits for parents”. In this paper he could draw on the data generated in the two previous papers to make the case. Better still, he write all these papers and collect the evidence in a paper with a thesis style title. Remember: the definition of a thesis is a position you are taking on an issue. This final paper could be something like “Kids learn more from gaming than from their teachers”.

If he did all that he could definitely have more gaming time. Actually, next time he complains about his gaming privileges I might just hand him this study design and say “do this first”.


Anyway, I digress. Titles are becoming increasingly important as a way for scholars to navigate the literature and decide what to download. Google Scholar has placed more emphasis on the title than the journal where the paper is located, making databases and journals less important than the paper’s content (a good thing I think). There’s some useful literature on what titles academics give their work, most of it written by James Hartley from Keele University. My favourite is his paper “There’s more to the title than meets the eye: exploring the possibilities” in which Hartley lays out twelve different types of title.

Let’s use Thesis Whisperer Jnr as an example again. Here’s twelve different paper titles he could write about gaming, using Hartley’s taxonomy:

  • A title that announces the general subject, e.g.: “The effect of playing Kerbal Space Program on teenager’s grade point average”.
  • A specific theme following a general heading. These papers usually have a semi-colon in them, for example – “Teenage gamers: the relation between hours spent gaming and grades at school”.
  • A title which indicates a controlling question, e.g. – “Is gaming a waste of time for teenagers?”
  • A title that indicates an answer will be revealed, e.g. – “Playing computer games increases teenagers’ grade point average”
  • A title that indicates the position the author will take, e.g. – “Gaming  is good for teenagers’ mental health and social development”
  • A title that indicates the methodology used, e.g. – “Teenage gaming: a survey of the literature”
  • A title that is suggestive of guidelines or comparisons, e.g. – “19 ways that playing computer games boost teenager grade point averages”
  • A title that bids for attention using a startling or unusual statement, e.g. – “It’s educational Mum!”: an analysis of negotiations between teenage gamers and their carers”.
  • A title that bids for attention using alliteration – the same letter at the start of most of the words, e.g. – “PVP, PVE and perpetually perplexed parents”
  • A title that bids for attention by using literary or biblical allusions “To raid or not to raid? An analysis of teenage gamer friendships”.
  • A title that bids for attention through using a pun, e.g. – “I’ll be your player 1 if you’ll be my player 2: teenage gamers and dating”.
  • Straight out mystifying or confusing titles, e.g. – “Mum said Whiskey Foxtrot Tango”

I hope I’ve convinced you that taking time to deeply consider the title of a piece of work is worthwhile. Every paper you write is competing with many others for attention. No one really knows how many academic journal articles there are online, but some estimate there are more than 50 million and others estimate that the majority of academic papers are never cited.

That’s centuries of human effort … wasted.

What do you think? Do you find that you make snap decisions based on the title, or do other factors play a more important role? Do you have any tricks or techniques for generating good titles? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.