More often than not, when researchers set about writing a paper, they spend the most time on the "meat" of the article (the Methods, Results, and Discussion sections). Little thought goes into the title and abstract, while keywords get even lesser attention, often being typed out on-the-spot in a journal’s submission system.
Ironically, these three elements—the title, abstract, and keywords—may well hold the key to publication success. A negligent or sloppy attitude towards these three vital elements in the research paper format would be almost equivalent to leaving the accessibility of the research paper up to chance and lucky guessing of target words, indirectly making the effort and time expended on the research and publication process almost null and void.
It could be said that the keywords, title, and abstract operate in a system analogous to a chain reaction. Once the keywords have helped people find the research paper and an effective title has successfully lassoed and drawn in the readers’ attention, it is up to the abstract of the research paper to further trigger the readers’ interest and maintain their curiosity. This functional advantage alone serves to make an abstract an indispensable component within the research paper format.
However, formulating the abstract of a research paper can be a tedious task, given that abstracts need to be fairly comprehensive, without giving too much away. This is mainly because if readers get all the details of the research paper in the abstract itself, they might be discouraged from reading the entire article.
The title, abstract, and keywords: Why it is important to get them right
The title, abstract, and keywords play a pivotal role in the communication of research. Without them, most papers may never be read or even found by interested readers1-4. Here’s why:
- Most electronic search engines, databases, or journal websites will use the words found in your title and abstract, and your list of keywords to decide whether and when to display your paper to interested readers.1,2,5-8Thus, these 3 elements enable the dissemination of your research; without them, readers would not be able to find or cite your paper.
- The title and abstract are often the only parts of a paper that are freely available online.1,9 Hence, once readers find your paper, they will read through the title and abstract to determine whether or not to purchase a full copy of your paper/continue reading.2-4
- Finally, the abstract is the first section of your paper that journal editors and reviewers read. While busy journal editors may use the abstract to decide whether to send a paper for peer review or reject it outright, reviewers will form their first impression about your paper on reading it.10
Given the critical role that these 3 elements play in helping readers access your research, we offer a set of guidelines (compiled from instructions and resources on journals’ websites and academic writing guidelines, listed in the references) on writing effective titles and abstracts and choosing the right keywords.
How to write a good title for a research paper
Journal websites and search engines use the words in research paper titles to categorize and display articles to interested readers, while readers use the title as the first step to determining whether or not to read an article. This is why it is important to know how to write a good title for a research paper. Good research paper titles (typically 10–12 words long)6,7 use descriptive terms and phrases that accurately highlight the core content of the paper (e.g., the species studied, the literary work evaluated, or the technology discussed).1,5
How to write a research paper abstract
The abstract should work like a marketing tool.4,11It should help the reader decide “whether there is something in the body of the paper worth reading”10 by providing a quick and accurate summary of the entire paper,2,3 explaining why the research was conducted, what the aims were, how these were met, and what the main findings were.1,2,6-8,12
Types of abstracts
Generally between 100 and 300 words in length,1,3,4,12abstracts are of different types: descriptive, informative, and structured.
- Descriptive abstracts, usually used in the social sciences and humanities, do not give specific information about methods and results.13,14
- Informative abstracts are commonly used in the sciences and present information on the background, aim, methods, results, and conclusions.13,14
- Structured abstracts are essentially informative abstracts divided into a series of headings (e.g., Objective, Method, Results, Conclusion)9,15,16and are typically found in medical literature and clinical trial reports.
In this section, we focus on how to write a research paper abstract that is concise and informative, as such abstracts are more commonly used in scientific literature. You can follow the same strategy to write a structured abstract; just introduce headings based on the journal guidelines.
Here are some steps (with examples) you can follow to write an effective title:
1. Answer the questions: What is my paper about? What techniques/ designs were used? Who/what is studied? What were the results?
- My paper studies whether X therapy improves the cognitive function of patients suffering from dementia.
- It was a randomized trial.
- I studied 40 cases from six cities in Japan.
- There was an improvement in the cognitive function of patients.
2. Use your answers to list key words.
- X therapy
- Randomized trial
- 6 Japanese cities
- 40 cases
- Improved cognitive function
3. Build a sentence with these key words: This study is a randomized trial that investigates whether X therapy improved cognitive function in 40 dementia patients from 6 cities in Japan; it reports improved cognitive function. (28 words)
4. Delete all unnecessary words (e.g., study of, investigates) and repetitive words; link the remaining. This study is a randomized trial that investigates whether X therapy improved cognitive function in 40 dementia patients from 6 cities in Japan; it reports improved cognitive functionRandomized trial of X therapy for improving cognitive function in 40 dementia patients from 6 cities in Japan (18 words)
5. Delete non-essential information and reword. Randomized trial of X therapy for improving cognitive function in 40 dementia patients from 6 cities in Japan reports improved cognitive function
Randomized trial of X therapy for improving cognitive function in 40 dementia patients (13 words) OR (reworded with subtitle and a focus on the results)X therapy improves cognitive function in 40 dementia patients: A randomized trial (12 words)
- Begin writing the abstract after you have finished writing your paper.
- First answer the questions “What problem are you trying to solve?” and “What motivated you to do so?” by picking out the major objectives/hypotheses and conclusions from your Introduction and Conclusion sections.
- Next, answer the question "How did you go about achieving your objective?" by selecting key sentences and phrases from your Methods section.
- Now, reveal your findings by listing the major results from your Results section.
- Finally, answer the question "What are the implications of your findings?"
- Arrange the sentences and phrases selected in steps 2, 3, 4, and 5 into a single paragraph in the following sequence: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusions.
- Make sure that this paragraph is self-contained1,2,7,12 and does not include the following:1-3,7,12
- Information not present in the paper
- Figures and tables
- Literature review or reference citations
- Now, link your sentences.
- Ensure that the paragraph is written in the past tense1,7,17 and check that the information flows well, preferably in the following order: purpose, basic study design/techniques used, major findings, conclusions, and implications.
- Check that the final abstract
- Contains information that is consistent with that presented in the paper.
- Meets the guidelines of the targeted journal (word limit, type of abstract, etc.)
- Does not contain typographical errors as these may lead referees and editors to “conclude that the paper is bad and should be rejected.”10
Journals, search engines, and indexing and abstracting services classify papers using keywords.2,4,5,7 Thus, an accurate list of keywords will ensure correct indexing and help showcase your research to interested groups.2 This in turn will increase the chances of your paper being cited.3
Here’s how you can go about choosing the right keywords for your paper:3,5,7,18
- Read through your paper and list down the terms/phrases that are used repeatedly in the text.
- Ensure that this list includes all your main key terms/phrases and a few additional key phrases.
- Include variants of a term/phrase (e.g., kidney and renal), drug names, procedures, etc.
- Include common abbreviations of terms (e.g., HIV).
- Now, refer to a common vocabulary/term list or indexing standard in your discipline (e.g., GeoRef, ERIC Thesaurus, PsycInfo, ChemWeb, BIOSIS Search Guide, MeSH Thesaurus) and ensure that the terms you have used match those used in these resources.
- Finally, before you submit your article, type your keywords into a search engine and check if the results that show up match the subject of your paper. This will help you determine whether the keywords in your research paper are appropriate for the topic of your article.
While it may be challenging to write effective titles and abstracts and to choose appropriate keywords, there is no denying the fact that it is definitely worth putting in extra time to get these right. After all, these 3 smallest segments of your paper have the potential to significantly impact your chances of getting published, read, and cited.