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 —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 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:
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.
Good research paper titles (typically 10–12 words long) use descriptive terms and phrases that accurately highlight the core content of the 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
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
Generally between 100 and 300 words in length,1,3,4,12abstracts are of different types:
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)
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
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.
You might also find the following articles helpful:
- 3 Basic tips on writing a good research paper title
- Why do journals ask for keywords?
- A 10-step guide to make your research paper abstract more effective
- Tips on effective use of tables and figures in research papers
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