Titles Bring the Academy Into our Theater

By: Benjamin Aronson, PharmD, PhD and Cortney Mospan, PharmD, BCACP, BCGP

This post is part of our Educational Scholarship “Quick Start” series.  In this series, the editorial boards of Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning and Innovations in Pharmacy are joining together to provide advice that helps authors avoid common problems in education-related inquiry.  A “Quick Start” is not only about being efficient – it’s about enhancing the impact and effectiveness of our scholarly contributions.  


 Uninspired titles = disengaged readers.

Your eyes start skimming the table of contents from your favorite journal. As you start making your way through the list of titles, you see first words such as: 

Exploring………. 

Impact of……….

Using……….

Measuring……….

Development……….

Assessing……….

Pharmacy student……….

Your eyes gloss over as you read unwieldy, formulaic titles and wonder – “Why do none of these entice me to be an audience for the authors’ work?”

These were, in fact, some of the most frequent first words in titles from recent issues of Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning and the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. The words are not necessarily bad, just common, unexciting, and somewhat superfluous; they convey what was done adequately, but they don’t tell the real story. They certainly don’t compel you to pencil that article into your must-read list. We’d like to challenge the Academy to leave familiar title formulas behind and set the stage for their work with stronger titles.

Titles serve a purpose and create our readership 

In Bonfire Red Titles, Lingard uses painting a red door as an analogy for the titles we select.1 Just as a red door draws attention and tells our neighbors something about what goes on inside our house, our titles are meant to do three things:

  1. Grab the reader’s attention
  2. Accurately describe the paper
  3. Get the article identified in literature searches 

Consider your most recent project or manuscript, then consider the following question. Does it draw your readers into your theater, or encourage them to walk by? 1

Avoiding the unwieldy and formulaic

As pharmacists and pharmacy educators, we are often rule followers and creatures of habit. Our titles tend to follow a standard formula. But here is a secret: not all titles must follow the standard formula. And by breaking from the formula, we can encourage an audience to witness our work. Don’t believe us?

Too often our first instinct is to write the descriptive and familiar title – but we lose potential readers and the potential impact of our work by doing so. Here are some innovative titles that caught our eyes, and our formulaic versions that could have been (Table 1). 

Table 1. The titles that could have lost our attention, and the titles that didn’t

The title that caught our eye… The title could have been…
Commentaries
A dentist, pilot, and pastry chef walk into a bar… Why teaching the PPCP is not enough Teaching the Pharmacists’ Patient Care Process Requires Education with Attention to Consistency and Practice Standards
Illuminating shadows: The power of learning by observingUsing clinical observations to teach medical students the art of medicine
Original Research
“Not to exclude you, but…”: Characterization of pharmacy student microaggressions and recommendations for academic pharmacyDescribing common types of  microaggressions within a college of pharmacy
Taken out of context: Hazards in the interpretation of written assessment comments Using constructivist grounded theory to categorize faculty interpretations of written evaluations: a qualitative study

Tips to pack the house on opening night

There are many approaches for creating compelling titles that are more likely to catch the attention of those who may learn and use the fruits of your scholarship. We have summarized some of the key points that Helen Sword shares in Stylistic Academic Writing2:

DOs

  • Consider the use of metaphor. Metaphors conjure imagery, and have visual impact.3 With few words they convey depth of meaning and can evoke feelings that get readers to observe the work. 
  • Give it time to marinate. The title is often an afterthought, the last thing to come together before hitting submit – but it should have been drafted, debated, and intentionally chosen. 
  • Try to incorporate key search terms. This can be key to making sure your audience encounters your work on Google Scholar or Pubmed.

DON’Ts

  • Careful not to overdo metaphors or pop-culture references. 
  • Seek to grab attention without faithfulness to your manuscript.
  • Reconsider: the colon. Does every title need one? Colons can be impactful when used appropriately, but sometimes become too bulky and less inviting.
  • Sometimes less is more. In a quest to tell everything about your manuscript, do you wind up with a title that is uninspired and prone to lose interest? 
  • Watch for jargon. Your paper can get overlooked if it is too vague, abstract or difficult to interpret. 

Fin

As you think about the longevity and impact of your work, the title is the spark to ignite your reader. Give it the finesse it deserves. Even the best stories ever written can’t have impact if the audience isn’t there to see the work. Our titles are our mechanism to bring the Academy into our theatre.

References

  1. Lingard L. Bonfire red titles. Perspect Med Educ. 2016;5(3):179-181.
  2. Sword H. Tempting Titles. In: Stylistic Academic Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2012.
  3. Sword H. Snowflakes, Splinters, and Cobblestones: Metaphors for Writing. In: Innovations in Narrative and Metaphor: Methodologies and Practices. 2019. 

Disclosures

Ben Aronson is a member of the Editorial Board for Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning. Cortney Mospan is an Assistant Editor for The Senior Care Pharmacist, member of the Editorial Boards for Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning and Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy, and member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association.


Author Bios

Ben Aronson is an Assistant Professor of Social and Administrative Pharmacy at Ohio Northern University College of Pharmacy. Educational scholarship interests include student success, professional engagement, and helping students find their fit in the profession. In his free time, Ben enjoys cooking for his wife and four sons, winning food eating competitions, and running off all those calories with his very active dog.

Cortney Mospan is an Associate Professor of Pharmacy at Wingate University Levine College of Health Sciences and a Clinical Pharmacist Practitioner with Novant Health. Her teaching areas include women’s health, entrepreneurship, patient communications and advocacy. Scholarly interests include best practices for professional advocacy and the role of community pharmacists in mental health and contraception access. Cortney enjoys spending her free time with her husband and son exploring nature, enjoying a nice glass of wine, and hanging out with their three cats.


Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

1 Comment

  1. Drs.Aronson & Mospan,
    Thank you for your thought-provoking comments on article titling.

    I would be interested to further hear how you would propose revising titling, given helpful suggestions that describes your study and your study population. The ICMJE provides similar guidance on titling (“the title provides a distilled description of the complete article and should include information that, along with the Abstract, will make electronic retrieval of the article sensitive and specific”).

    Furthermore, reporting guidelines like PRISMA, STROBE, and CONSORT recommend and some journals require that information about the study design be a part of the title (CONSORT=randomized trials, PRISMA=systematic reviews and meta- analyses, STROBE=observational studies).

    As an example (to my understanding), using the specific title word “exploring” can help potentially-interested readers identify that this investigation used a qualitative study design. It may have limited generalizability from a quantitative standpoint, but should have thick/rich description of context and may have helpful transferability to that reader’s situtation.

    Thank you for considering,

    Like

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