Article Titles Make a Difference

When you go to the trouble of writing an article for publication, it’s worth spending some time thinking about and composing an appropriate title. The title is your first chance to engage prospective readers—to get their attention immediately. A poorly chosen title can mean a significantly smaller audience than your work might deserve.

In Writing Mathematics Well: A Manual for Authors (MAA, 1987), Leonard Gillman advised: “Keep your title short and include key words to make it informative.”

Striking the right balance between brevity and informativeness (while still attracting attention), however, can be harder than it sounds.

Consider, for example, the title “Remark on a Theorem of Hilbert.” It’s short, but too vague. “A Generalization of Hilbert’s Norm Theorem to Abelian Extensions of Skew Fields of Characteristic Zero” goes to the other extreme and provides far more detail than necessary.

“A long title sounds pompous and is a nuisance to refer to,” Gillman warned. Indeed, long titles increase the probability that a paper will be cited inaccurately in the mathematical literature, and such errors can propagate widely for a long time.

So, “Hilbert’s Norm Theorem for Skew Fields” might be a reasonable compromise; it’s informative, though not especially engaging.

Another important principle is to steer clear of symbols; they do not belong in a title. They invariably cause problems in bibliographies (or in web or database searches), where they may be incorrectly rendered or even missing.

In the following example from a published article, I have to use an image to display the title. I can’t imagine that this paper will ever get cited correctly or accurately, and hence may, in some sense, disappear from the literature.

Sample journal article title containing a symbol

One useful exercise is to look at the table of contents of a recent issue of, say, the American Mathematical Monthly and evaluate each of the article titles. Is the title informative? Is it engaging? Should it be longer? shorter? What makes it a successful title (or why does it fail)? What decides whether you would go on to the abstract, then to the introductory section?

By paying attention to how you yourself react to titles, you may be in a better position to come up with titles for your own articles that appeal to your prospective readers.–I. Peterson