Most academics use the citation count of their peer-reviewed publications to assess the impact of their research. Unfortunately, a substantial proportion of published articles are poorly cited, which suggests a minimal contribution by this work to the knowledge in a field. For example, Kortlever et al. found that 36% of the 135,029 articles published in 204 orthopedic journals between 2002-2012 could be classified as poorly cited (≤ five citations after publication). Moreover, the proportion of poorly cited articles increased from 27% (7,860) in 2002 to 43% (16,282) in 2012. A similar analysis of 164,377 articles published in 222 cardiovascular journals from 1997 to 2007 found that 46% (75,550) were poorly cited (≤ five citations within five years after publication) and that 15.6% (25,650) had no citations at all.
These findings seem to indicate that ~40% of the articles published in peer-reviewed journals add little new knowledge to a field of study. Although some of these poorly cited articles deserve the lack of attention, others simply fail to communicate their findings effectively. As a countermeasure, authors could either cite their own work at every opportunity or improve their writing skills. I contend that a key element in reaching and being noticed by an intended audience is the title of the article.
In crafting a title for an article, an author must consider how best to convey its contents to the intended audience and how to minimize errors when it is entered into the major citation database systems (e.g., Scopus, Web of Science, Google Scholar).
Effective titles share the following features:
- Informative – Use a declarative statement that summarizes the main point and scope of the article. The words included in the title are critical as they will help identify the article when readers are search databases with specific key words. Avoid using abbreviations or jargon.
- Concise – Titles should neither be too short nor too long but of sufficient length to provide concise informative statement (10-15 substantive words). An analysis of the 20,000 most-cited papers from 2007-2013 found that articles with shorter titles tended to be cited more often, a subsequent larger scale empirical study has cast doubt on this association. A colon can help keep the title concise.
- Create interest – The title must be crafted to attract the attention of the intended audience. Use words that motivate a potential reader to access the article.
What to avoid:
- Questions – Avoid posing a question in the title as it will not inform the potential reader about the main point of the article.
- Humor – The inclusion of a humorous phrase, typically after a colon, is not informative and will not be recognized by automated indexing systems. Moreover, your sense of humor will likely not be understood by many readers.
- Ambiguous characters – see the next section to learn about how characters can influence citation counts.
An under-appreciated issue that influences the citation count for an article is the robustness (ability to deal with erroneous input) of the major citation databases. The magnitude of this problem was demonstrated by Zhou et al. in a thorough evaluation of the performance of Scopus and Web of Science. The analysis was performed on 140,000 articles indexed by Scopus, and 34,892 articles indexed by Web of Science. One of their most interesting results was that the citation count was more strongly correlated with the number of hyphens in the title rather than the length of the title. The effect was evident even when the title included only a single hyphen. Importantly, the influence of hyphenation was greater for more highly cited articles. The explanation for this finding was that the ambiguity of the hyphen character (-), which results in the compound phrase being interpreted differently by citing authors. These errors have two consequences: 1) erroneous information is added to the citation databases; 2) they are easily propagated as many authors simply copy and paste from an existing reference list without verifying the articles they cite.
Unfortunately, the inclusion of hyphens in article titles has a substantial influence on journal impact factors, which are derived from the error-prone Web of Science database. Zhou et al. found a strong negative correlation (R2 = 0.47) between the impact factor of a specific engineering journal and the percentage of articles that included hyphens. Of note, they occasionally found inaccuracies in titles of articles downloaded from the Web of Science website. When the analysis was expanded to 106 software engineering journals (13,266 articles), they found that journals with higher impact factors published a lower percentage of articles with hyphenated titles. The negative influence of hyphens likely also permeates the World University Rankings that are derived from the Scopus database. Clearly, the use of hyphens in a title negatively impact the citation count for both the author and the journal.
There is no doubt that the title of your article has a significant influence on its impact. Your title must attract the attention of potential readers, and it must be simple enough to minimize errors in subsequent citations of your article. Your article title must be informative and concise, yet robust enough to minimize citation errors.
Roger M. Enoka, Ph.D., is a professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is the current Editor-in-Chief of Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews (ESSR).