How to compose titles and abstracts of research papers

It’s been a while since my August post; I have an excellent excuse for such a delay: I’ve been participating in the course in Science Communication addressed to the PhD students of the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia (Valencia Technical University, in Spain). Although I was commited to write one of the lessons, I must confess I’d a moment of glory when, in addition, I agreed to introduce the whole course in a 14 minutes video. Well, I did my best introducing the IMRAD pattern to the students in an English getting worse and worse as the minutes went by. This is the result:

The Structure of Research Papers (video, over fourteen minutes)

As its title suggests, this post has the text of the lecture I prepared on how to write the titles and the abstracts of research papers. The following text is more a compilation of readings than an original work. You can find my sources listed as bibliographic references. So, here you are.

Outline

1    Introduction

2    The title: What’s a title and what’s in it?

2.1          English sentences and syntax of titles

2.2          Types of titles and their function: some examples

2.3          Relationship between titles and texts

2.4          The style on the titles: some tips

2.5          Recap

3    The abstracts and their types

3.1          The extended abstract

3.2     The structured abstract and the relationship between the abstract and the corpus of the paper

3.2.1              The introduction or background (maybe with aims or purpose)

3.2.2              Methods (design, approach)

3.2.3              Results

3.2.4              Conclusions (limitations, implications)

3.3          Some tips on the style of the abstract

4    References

1. Introduction

The title and abstract are the most important parts of a paper and, although they’re the last elements you write, they make up the front matter, the title page of your work along with other elements like byline, addresses, tracing and keywords.

They are important for editors who will scan the title and abstract to decide if it should be sent out for external peer review; for reviewers, who will get a first impression of the paper; and for readers, as the title, abstract, and keywords are often the only parts of the paper that are freely accessible to everyone online, including readers in developing countries. Electronic search databases use words in the title and abstract to yield search results. In fact, the construction of an article title has a significant impact on how frequently the paper is cited. This may be related to the way electronic searches of the literature are undertaken. In a recent study, the number of citations was positively correlated with the length of the title, the presence of a colon in the title and the presence of an acronym. Factors that predicted poor citation included reference to a specific country in the title (1). Other studies have confirmed this relationship (2). Not to mention that some papers become famous because of their titles and/or abstracts: in a prodigy of brevity, the paper entitled Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement? has the following text as all abstract: “Probably not”.Journals usually require an abstract for original articles, which must clearly highlight the issue addressed by the studies and the key findings. An abstract should be a standalone one, without any reference to the main text or the literature. Most journals have a strict word limit for the ab- stract (typically 200-300 words). While an abstract must be pleasant to read on its own, the narrative tone and style must be more telegraphic than that of the main text.In the next paragraphs we define the title and its types. We devote also some lines to the lingüistics aspects of the sentences in order to better introduce its construction. Finally we give some rules to assure good titles for your papers. Next, we’ll move to the abstracts, their several types and their relationship with the rest of the paper.

2 The title: What’s a title and what’s in it?

Every intellectual work, whether plastic, literary, musical or scientific, have a title and even if they have not, we draw on an oxymoron to entitle them as “Untitled” or “No title”. That’s because we need a short way to refer to it.

In the case of research documents, which usually are written ones, a title should inform about the text and entice readers to read it. The information given can describe the content of the text (a descriptive title) or indicate the conclusions to be drawn from it (an informative title).

How do you decide whether to read something? You look at the title, of course. If you’re not yet decided, you keep on reading the abstract.

A title is a word or sentence, which describes the content of a whole work or of its parts. The key characteristic of a title is that it is distinguishing: the title gives uniqueness to a work, either literary or scientific.

T1           Vingt mille lieues sous les mers or

T2           Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körpe are corresponding examples in both fields.

The only exception to this characteristic is the so called generic title (also series or collective title) which is frequently used to bring together several parts of a series. Thus, the above mentioned novel by Jules Verne is the sixth in a series of sixty eight novels collectively entitled Voyages extraordinaires, while

T3           A query language for discovering semantic associations,

 is just the final of a two-part article in Information Science which continues as  Part II: sample queries and query evaluation.

So, the main features of the title are:

  1. Brevity: the title is used to refer briefly to a particular document
  2. Originality: a title serves to distinguish a document from the rest
  3. Meaningfulness: the title bears information enough to describe the content of the full document

2.1 English sentences and syntax of titles

As English is by far the dominant language in science writing and communication, it’s worth to pay some attention to the basic rules of sentence construction as well as their types, yet the title is made up of one or more of them.

By its expressive purpose, you can have a statement (a declarative sentence) a question (an interrogative sentence) an exclamation or a command (an imperative sentence). These last two types occur at a very low (if any) frequency in titles of research documents; however, they could be present in titles of social sciences and particularly humanities papers, which bear some paraphrases or even quotes. Let’s see some cases:

T4           Essential oils and homogenization conditions affect the properties of chitosan-based films

or its variant

T5           Effect of essential oils and homogenization conditions on properties of chitosan-based films

Are examples of declarative titles, while

T6           What hampers innovation? Revealed barriers versus deterring barriers

Contains a question. This last example is made up of no one but two sentences, the question ans its answer and is also an example of compound title.

In fact, from a structural point of view, most of the titles are simple sentences made up of an independent clause (noun-verb-predicate) as in title T4. On the other hand T6 is a complex title (one independent clause in the question followed by one dependent clause. Finally,

T7           Cultivating engineers’ humanity: Fostering cosmopolitanism in a Technical University

is a compound title, with two independent clauses bound by a colon.

Titles of original research reports in biomedical journals have been descriptive in the past, which means that they indicate the purpose of the study rather than its results. Titles that indicate results are termed informative or declarative; they ‘say it all’. Opinions differ as to whether original research reports should have descriptive or informative titles (3).

Journals rarely state a preference for informative or descriptive titles in their instructions to authors, they just limit the number of characters and some times the punctuation marks they allow.

In 2007, an exploratory study was conducted of the most recurrent structures of titles in research papers and review papers in biological and social sciences (4). Four types of structures were found: nominal, question, compound and full-sentence. Full-length sentences that were questions were classified as questions. In medicine she found that the most prevalent title construction for research papers was ‘nominal’ (72%) and the least prevalent was ‘question’ (1%). For review papers, ‘nominal’ was again the most prevalent (46%) followed by ‘compound’ (40%), and again ‘question’ was the least common (6%). Full-sentence constructions were only found in research papers, and in fact only in biology, not in social science papers. Soler points out that this construction allows researchers to present their finding in one informative sentence.

These four basic structures and the declarative or descriptive character of titles have been combined to offer a full range of possibilities in designing appropriate patterns3.

2.2 Types of titles and their function: some examples

 

There are titles which

announce the general subject:

T8           On a classical renorming construction of V. Klee

particularise a specific theme following a general heading:

T9           Socially Responsible Investment: A multicriteria approach to portfolio selection combining ethical and financial objectives

indicate the controlling question:

T10         Breast cancer mortality in Spain: Has it really declined for all age groups?

indicate that the answer to a question will be revealed:

T11         Current findings from research on structured abstracts

indicate the direction of the author’s argument:

T12         The lost art of conversation

emphasise the methodology used in the research:

T13         Using colons in titles: A meta-analytic review

suggest guidelines and/or comparisons:

T14         Seven types of ambiguity

bid for attention by using startling or effective openings:
T15        Making a difference: An exploration of leadership roles in sixth form colleges

attract by alliteration:

T16        A taxonomy of titles

attract by using literary or biblical allusions:
T17        From structured abstracts to structured articles: A modest proposal

attract by using puns (terms with more than one sense):
T18        Now take this PIL (Patient Information Leaflet)

mystify or paraphrase:
T19        Outside the whale

2.3 Relationship between titles and texts

As you need to persuade your peers of the originality of your paper, your title should relate to the sections which sections containing the most original ideas, methods or findings. Don’t be afraid to be creative and don’t just draw from the introduction. Look at the previous examples and compare T5 and T4. The later is far more conclusive and robust than the former and not a mere variant of it.

A statistical recommendation model of mobile services based on contextual evidences and Frechet spaces with no infinite-dimensional Banach quotients are examples of “introductory” titles. On the other hand, Improvement of adhesion properties of polypropylene substrates by methyl methacrylate UV photografting surface treatment emphasizes the method used (the surface treatment with ultraviolet rays) to achieve its main goal. Another way to focus in the methodology can be found in T13 above, although that case is much less specific.

Question titles are mostly based on the research questions of the paper they head, as in Which firms want PhDs? An analysis of the determinants of the demand or in Do Environmental Stream Classifications Support Flow Assessments in Mediterranean Basins?

Titles made up of compound or complex sentences present an interesting feature: they are self-limited. For example, Do conservative agriculture practices increase soil water repellency? A case study in citrus-cropped soils establish that the relationship with water is analyzed in soils from citrus crops and  in T9 above ethical and financial criteria are stressed as the approaches the paper take.

So, think carefully where the strength of your paper resides and try to generate it by combining clauses from the different sections or subsections. Unless the journal policy prevents you about using question in the title, one effective, yet risky, formula is to combine your research question and your main findings, as in

T20         How do plant viruses induce disease? By interfering with host components

Given that two-part titles are much less common than other titles they generally attract more attention, and like questions work well for abstracts submitted to conferences.

2.4 The style of the titles: some tips

In titles, use verbs instead of abstract nouns. Where possible use the -ing form of verbs rather than abstract nouns. This will make your title more readable as well as making it 2–3 words shorter.

Avoid buzzwords for they rest originality and attractiveness to your title; do not use too generic terms either. It is very redundant begin a title with expressions such as A study of… An investigation of… By the way, the same applies to the abstract !

The key terms in your title, those which convey the meaning of your work, are likely to be nouns. So choose these nouns very carefully. For example, in

T21         Processing, characterization and biological testing of porous titanium obtained by space-holder technique

the significant terms are porous titanium and space-holder technique.

Try to choose adjectives that indicate the unique features of your work, e.g. low cost, scalable, robust, powerful. And use some tricks taking advantage of web search engines (5): if you plan to include a given term in your title, say “impact assessment”, seek it in Google Scholar. You will discover that it’s not that a good idea.

Titles are often constricted by the number of characters that can be used (check with your journal to see how many words or characters you can use). In some cases you can keep your title as it is but reduce it in length simply by replacing the non-key words with shorter synonyms.

Avoid, where possible, the strings of nouns:

T22        A well-balanced high-resolution shape-preserving central scheme to solve one-dimensional sediment transport equations

but

T23        High Proton Conductivity in a Flexible, Cross-Linked, Ultramicroporous Magnesium Tetraphosphonate Hybrid Framework

2.5 Recap

After following the above recommendations, you finally need to check that your title is:

  1.  In correct English-in terms of syntax, vocabulary, spelling and capitalization
  2. Understandable (no strings of nouns)
  3. Eye-catching and dynamic (through effective use of vocabulary and even punctuation)
  4. Sufficiently and appropriately specific
  5. Reflects the content of your paper
  6. Expressed in a form that is acceptable for a journal

Definitely, A Comparative Study of Artificial Neural Networks Using Reinforcement Learning and Multidimensional Bayesian Classification Using Parzen Density Estimation for Identification of GC-EIMS Spectra of Partially Methylated Alditol Acetates on the World Wide Web is not a good title. I refuse to number it.

3. The abstracts and their types

Preparation, submission, and presentation of an abstract are important facets of the research process, which benefit the investigator/author in several ways. Writing an abstract consists primarily of answering the questions, “Why did you start?” “What did you do?” “What did you find?” and “What does it mean?”

But, first things first: what is an abstract and what type of abstracts exists?

An abstract is an abbreviated, objective and reliable representation of the contents of a document. The abstract you most likely will first compose will be an extended abstract. Writing a good abstract is not an easy task at all because, in addition to the exigencies of the journal editors, you must carefully select from your text the sentences most likely to represent the essence of your paper.

There are four main types of abstracts, all of which summarize the highlights of your research and all of which will be judged in isolation from the accompanying paper (if there is one)6. Abstracts are sometimes called summaries.

The simple abstract is made up of a single paragraph of between 100–250 words containing a very brief summary of each of the main sections of your paper.

The structured abstract is the same, but its content is divided into several short sections.

The extended abstract is a mini paper organized in the same way as a full paper (e.g. Introduction, Methods, Discussion …), but substantially shorter (two to four pages).

The graphical abstract depicts the most relevant finding of a paper by representing a chemical reaction, a statistical distribution, a microscopical sample as an image. It first appeared in chemistry journals.

In addition to these, the executive summary summarizes a longer report or proposal or a group of related reports in such a way that readers can rapidly become acquainted with a large body of material without having to read it all. An executive summary differs from an abstract in that an abstract will usually be shorter and is intended to provide a neutral overview or orientation rather than being a condensed version of the full document. Also, an abstract is mostly used in academic environments while executive summaries are associated mainly in internal settings (as part of progress reports and working papers) and for business purposes.

It is worth mentioning executive summaries because they are meant to replace the reading of the full report while abstracts are not: they are composed to introduce the full paper; however, I will refer mainly to the structured abstract because it shows more clearly the relationship between the content of the sections of the full paper and the different paragraphs the abstract contains. So, after some remarks on the extended abstract I’ll go straight to the structured abstract and its relatioship with the different sections of the whole paper.

3.1 The extended abstract

I’ve written that you most likely will begin composing an extended abstract because novice researchers and PhD students debut submitting their work to a meeting. There are a number of advantages to the abstract writing and presenting process, as opposed to simply preparing a manuscript and submitting it for publication once the study has been completed. By requiring the investigator/author to reduce the whole project into a brief synopsis, it forces concentration on the most important aspects of the study’s purpose, design, findings, and implications, and in so doing clarifies the writer’s thinking about the project. It moves the project along the path to preparation of the full manuscript (something that intimidates many novice authors) by necessitating a concise synthesis of the data, and assembling the results for inclusion in a poster facilitates decision making on the best way to display and interpret the results. It subjects the author’s work to peer review, albeit in abbreviated form7.

Pragmatically speaking, having an abstract on the program is the only way many investigators can obtain permission and/or institutional support for attending an important professional meeting. More importantly for the work itself, presentation of the findings at a national meeting of one’s peers gets the message out earlier than is generally possible with full peer-reviewed manuscript publication, thus speeding up the advance of knowledge and practice. And discussing the project and its findings with colleagues at the meeting nearly always yields insights, questions, and interpretations that alter and improve the final manuscript.

Anyway, the techniques, tricks and principles to compose an extended abstract are the same which applies to the simple or the structured abstract, as we’ll see below.

3.2 The structured abstract and its relationship with the text of the paper

A structured abstract is a summary description of a published paper, in which information about the study reported in the paper is set out in a systematic, stylized form with separate paragraphs broken down under headings such as aims, methods, main outcome measures, results, conclusions.

As stated in the preceding paragraphs, the purposes of a research abstract are to address in abbreviated form what should be communicated in a scientific paper:

Why did you start?

What did you do?

What did you find? and probably also

What does it mean?

As you may well be aware of, the first of these questions applies to the introduction (or background), the second to the methods section, the third to the results, and the fourth to the conclusions. An abstract needs to contain concise but coherent answers to those questions, and nothing more.

On the other hand, while there is no need to accommodate to the strict IMRAD order in the case of simple or narrative abstracts, there is an ordered sequence in the paragraphs of the structured abstract. Let’s examine the “structure of structure”.

To assist clinicians in quickly finding articles that are both scientifically sound and applicable to their practices, the Ad Hoc Working Group for Critical Appraisal of the Medical Literature proposed, in 1987, a seven-heading format for informative abstracts in clinical articles (8). Needless to say, as with the IMRAD scheme, the proposal has gained adepts in journals and research fields other than the biomedical.

Most authors agree that the structured format helps them to write clearer abstracts. Structured abstracts also force the author to answer all the questions (including limitations to their research) that referees and readers are likely to ask. In addition, they are much more readable as referees (for their peer reviews) and readers can find exactly what they want quickly. As with simple abstracts, it is very important that you follow the journal’s instructions to authors which will tell you what sections to include in your abstract and what style to adopt.

This sort of abstract tends to be longer (up to 400 words) and is often written as a series of points or sections. In the example linked above, these are:

  1. Purpose
  2. Design/methodology/approach
  3. Findings
  4. Research limitations/implications
  5. Originality/value

James Hartley, one of the strongest advocates of structured abstracts offers a more concise structure to be applied in Educational Psychology papers (9). His paragraphs are labelled as follows:

  1. Background
  2. Aim
  3. Method
  4. Results
  5. Conclusions

Even if you are not obliged to compose a structured abstract for your paper or your meeting presentation, it is very important to retain these general schemes and take advantage of the relationship between the sentences/paragraphs of the abstract and the sections and subsections of the paper.

The following figure shows the relationship between the IMRAD scheme and the seven-heading (eight- actually) scheme of the structured abstract (10):

Figura1

Now, let’s see how each of the section is related with every paragraph (7).

3.2.1 The introduction or background (maybe with aims or purpose)

This brief section answers the question, “Why did you start?” or even better “Why you did what you did?” and should provide a context or explanation for doing the study. Space is at a premium, so a short sentence or two must suffice. This section should also state the aim of the study, and ideally should include a concise statement of the study’s hypothesis. Look at this example:

Total hip arthroplasty is a flourishing orthopedic surgery, generating billions of dollars of revenue. The cost associated with the fabrication of implants has been increasing year by year, and this phenomenon has burdened the patient with extra charges. Consequently, this study will focus on designing an accurate implant via implementing the reverse engineering of three-dimensional morphological study based on a particular population

Note that this paragraph also states the aim or main objective of the paper. Context setting should never take up more than 25% of the whole abstract, as it probably contains information that the reader already knows. Your readers want new information, not old information.

3.2.2 Methods (design, approach)

The methods section of a research paper could well be written before the research itself is begun and any data collected, and the same is true for abstracts. This section answers the question, “What did you do and how?”. In an abstract the description of the methods has to be concise, and many details of what was done must be omitted. However, in the space available the reader can be given a good idea of the design of the study as well as the context in which it was done. For instance:

Sample individuals of 30 Platanus hispanica Münchh. with mean diameter at breast height 23.56cm, crown diameter 8.44m, crown base height 3.76m, and total height 11.57m were examined. Wood formed 43.34% of pruned biomass before the drying process and wood moisture content in wet basis reached 40.16%. Mean quantity of dry biomass obtained per tree was 23.98kg and standard deviation was 15.16kg. Allometric relationships were analyzed. Significant coefficients of determination were observed for dry biomass and diameter at breast height (R2=0.87), as well as for dry biomass and conical and parabolic crown volume (R2=0.78).

3.2.3 Results

Here the abstract needs to tell the reader what the findings of the study were. Although space is limited, it is important to give the main results not just in subjective terms (“We found device X to be superior to device Y”) but also in the form of some real data. The results that pertain to the study’s hypothesis and that constitute the primary end points described in the methods, must be included—even if no statistically significant differences were found. Data from which the conclusions will be drawn should be reported in as much detail as space allows. Look at this:

During the biological treatment (hydraulic residence time, HRT = 24 h), only AAF and CAF were completely eliminated, MET, SMX and HCT reached partial removal rates and the rest of compounds were completely refractory. With any ozone advanced oxidation process applied, the remaining pharmaceuticals disappear in less than 10 min. Fe3 O 4 or Fe(III) photocatalytic ozonation leads to 35% mineralization compared to 13% reached during ozonation alone after about 30-min reaction. Also, biodegradability of the treated wastewater increased 50% in the biological process plus another 150% after the ozonation processes. Both untreated and treated wastewater was non-toxic for Daphnia magna (D. magna) except when Fe(III) was used in photocatalytic ozonation

 3.2.4 Conclusions (limitations, implications)

The conclusions section (some times this section is labeled “implications”) should be a brief statement of why the study’s findings are important and what the author believes they mean. The most common mistake here is to make more of the data than they deserve. Conclusions should be reasonable and supportable by the findings of the study. If the study was restricted to certain patients, or to a particular therapy, or to the performance of a device under specific conditions, the results may not extend beyond those restrictions. Here you are a final example:

Stratification of the individuals by their excretion capability is more relevant than technological treatments in terms of flavanone bioavailability. This stratification should be considered in clinical studies with citrus juices and extracts as it could explain the large interindividual variability that is often observed.

3.3 Some tips on the style of the abstract

Although the style of an abstract may differ from discipline to discipline and from journal to journal, the structure and information provided is quite similar. The aim is always to tell readers all they need to know to help them decide whether to read the paper.

When you read an advertisement for a product it never begins The objective of this advertisement is to convince you to buy … Instead advertisers go straight to the point. Abstracts are like advertisements for your paper. So, do not begin your abstract with “This study deals with…” be direct instead and go to the point.

Use simple declarative sentences. Active voice is preferable to passive voice. There is no need to avoid the first person. Use generic names for drugs and devices, unless the specific brand used is a key aspect of the study. The most commonly used tenses in abstracts are the present simple (we show) and the past simple (we showed).

Avoid the most common mistakes in composing the abstract. These are:

  1. The abstract is not self sufficient
  2. The abstract seems like an introduction, in that its first component (background) is too long
  3. It contains reference to works by other authors
  4. It mentions details irrelevant to the purpose of your study
  5. Iy pays too much attention to the methods, however usual, and forgets to give account of the results.

Finally, to make a self-assessment of your abstract, you can ask yourself the following questions:

Have I followed the journal’s instructions to authors? Have I followed the right structure and style ?

Have I covered the relevant points from those below?

  • background / context
  • research problem / aim – the gap I plan to fill
  • methods
  • results
  • implications and/or conclusions

Have I chosen my keywords carefully so that readers can locate my abstract?

Can I make my Abstract less redundant? If I tried to reduce it by 25% would I really lose any key content?

A frustrating reality of abstract submission is that, despite repeated proof readings, errors often remain invisible to the author who has labored so long over it. It can be very helpful to have someone unconnected with the study read the abstract. Before the final draft is submitted, every listed author must read and approve the abstract.

4. References

1.      Jacques, T. S. & Sebire, N. J. The impact of article titles on citation hits: an analysis of general and specialist medical journals. JRSM Short Rep. 1, (2010).

2.      Jamali, H. R. & Nikzad, M. Article title type and its relation with the number of downloads and citations. Scientometrics 88, 653–661 (2011).

3.      Langdon-Neuner, E. Titles in medical articles: What do we know about them? J. Eur. Med. Writ. 16, 158–160 (2007).

4.      Soler, V. Writing titles in science: An exploratory study. Engl. Specif. Purp. 26, 90–102 (2007).

5.      Wallwork, A: Titles in English for Writing Research Papers. New York, Springer US, 2011. pp.163–176.

6.      Wallwork, A: Abstracts in English for Writing Research Papers. New York, Springer US, 2011. pp.177–193.

7.      Pierson, D. J. How to Write an Abstract That Will Be Accepted for Presentation at a National Meeting. Respir. Care 49, 1206–1212 (2004).

8.      Ad Hoc Working Group for Critical Appraisall of the Medical Literature. A Proposal for More Informative Abstracts of Clinical Articles. Ann. Intern. Med. 106, 598–604 (1987).

9.      Hartley, J. Improving the Clarity of Journal Abstracts in Psychology: The Case for Structure. Sci. Commun. 24, 366–379 (2003).

10. Nakayama, T., Hirai, N., Yamazaki, S. & Naito, M. Adoption of structured abstracts by general medical journals and format for a structured abstract. J. Med. Libr. Assoc. 93, 237–242 (2005).

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One thought on “How to compose titles and abstracts of research papers

  1. Pingback: A vueltas con los títulos de los trabajos de investigación | Undertakings, studies, and labours

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