In the era of online searches and digital libraries, the importance of a good title and abstract in a scientific paper is perhaps obvious. Yet, bad titles and poorly written abstracts are exceedingly common in the scientific and technical literature. In this chapter, I will talk about some of the common mistakes made in paper titles and abstracts, and then describe a nearly foolproof approach to writing good ones. The result will be a manuscript that is more likely to be accepted by a peer-reviewed journal and a paper that is more likely to be discovered and read by the people who should.
The purpose of a title and abstract is often described as “selling” the paper: getting someone reading the title to read the abstract, and someone reading the abstract to go further and read the paper. I have a different viewpoint. The true purpose of the title and abstract is to get the right people to read your paper. More than 99.9% of the scientific papers published each year are papers that I have no need and no desire to read. But there are a few papers that I should not miss - and those papers are different for me than for other readers. Thus, the purpose of the title and abstract is matchmaking: matching a paper with the right readers, i.e., those who want and need the information contained in the paper. As the 19th-century English writer and eccentric Charles Caleb Colton said, “That writer does the most who gives his reader the most information and takes from him the least time.” Nothing works better than a well-written title and abstract to make sure that the wrong reader does not waste time on the wrong paper, and that the right reader does not mistakenly skip over the right paper.
The title (followed by the abstract) is the first thing a reader sees, and so it should be the last thing an author writes (just after the abstract). Because the abstract should be written before the title, I will talk about abstracts first.