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Declarative titles: Should you state a study’s main findings in the title?

 

Declarative titles: Should you state a study’s main findings in the title?

There has been some controversy over the usage of declarative titles, i.e., titles that state the main findings of the study.

e.g., Visible light reduces C. elegans longevity [1]

Pros

Defenders of such titles have argued that they are more informative than other title styles (for information on title styles, please refer to our blog How to write an effective title); they help readers understand the article more readily and help busy clinicians keep up with the literature. From an author’s point of view, declarative titles are stronger and thus more likely to attract the editor’s attention and interest; and papers with declarative titles are more likely to be shared broadly online, reaching the lay public [2].

Cons

Opponents of declarative titles have argued that they can be misleading and depart from hypothesis-based science, in which a hypothesis cannot be proven, only supported or rejected. They argue that all findings should be open for interpretation, given the limitations and weaknesses inherent in every study, and thus, declarative titles often represent an overstatement of the conclusions. In addition, such titles can downplay the importance of outliers, i.e., those subjects who do not conform to the study’s outcome [3]. The use of declarative titles in the literature conflicts with the training of young researchers, who are taught to decide for themselves whether a conclusion is justified on the basis of the results presented. In worst case scenarios, such titles could enshrine a falsehood as a permanent truth in the literature [3], with potential impacts on public well-being.

Journal requirements

Box 1. Use of declarative titles as stated in author guidelines

Some journals prohibit the use of declarative titles, whereas others encourage and/or require their use (see Box 1 for examples). Most journals do not specify, but this does not preclude their use (see Box 2).

RequirementProhibited
MicrobiologyAll JAMA journals (e.g., Pediatrics)
Journal of Clinical EpidemiologyAll Healio journals (e.g., Orthopedics and Journal of Nursing Education)
American Journal of Obstetrics and GynecologyJournal of Microbiology and Biotechnology
American College of Physicians (ACP) Journal Club (>120 clinical journals)Obstetrics and Gynecology
BMJ: Evidence-based MedicineMolecular Psychiatry
BMJ: Evidence-based Mental HealthNature Communications

Box 2. Journal titles publishing declarative titles*

*Based on a Google Scholar search for articles published in 2019 with the word “reduces” in the title, conducted August 22, 2019 (Top 10 results).

RankJournal titleArticle titleRef.
1.Nature Communications1m6A modification of a 3’ UTR site reduces RME1 mRNA levels to promote meiosis[4]
2.Journal of the American College of CardiologyAlirocumab reduces total nonfatal cardiovascular and fatal events: the ODYSSEY OUTCOMES trial[5]
3.Molecular Psychiatry2Isoform-specific cleavage of neuroligin-3 reduces synapse strength[6]
4.The Journal of PhysiologyAcute high intensity interval exercise reduces colon cancer cell growth[7]
5.Nature NeuroscienceLoss of TREM2 function increases amyloid seeding but reduces plaque-associated ApoE[8]
6.NeuronDopamine deficiency reduces striatal cholinergic interneuron function in models of Parkinson’s Disease[9]
7.Journal of Personality and Social PsychologyPain offset reduces rumination in response to evoked anger and sadness[10]
8.Journal of ManagementFake it to make it? Emotional labor reduces the racial disparity in service performance judgments[11]
9.NeuropharmacologyTargeting MOR-mGluR5 heteromers reduces bone cancer pain by activating MOR and inhibiting mGluR5[12]
10.Annals of SurgeryDoxycycline reduces scar thickness and improves collagen architecture[13]

1Nature communications states in the author guidelines that the title should not contain “active verbs”. However, ref. [4] violates this rule, implying that it may not be strictly enforced.

2Molecular Psychiatry states in the author guidelines that the title “should not make a statement or conclusion”. However, ref. [6] violates this rule, implying that it may not be strictly enforced.

Should you use a declarative title? The verdict

Declarative titles should generally be avoided, unless specifically requested by the journal; if you do decide to use one, keep the following points in mind:

  • Use the past tense for original research papers.

“Acute high intensity interval exercise reduced colon cancer cell growth” reflects that this paper is based on a single study and thus should not be considered a general truth.

  • The passive voice is less resolute than the active voice.

“Colon cancer cell growth was reduced by acute high intensity interval exercise” is phrased more cautiously than the example in the previous point.

  • Be very cautious about overstating findings or drawing erroneous conclusions about causality when they cannot be established. An outcome may be associated with an intervention but not caused by it.

References

  1. De Magalhaes Filho CD, Henriquez B, Seah NE, Evans RM, Lapierre LR, Dillin A. Visible light reduces C. elegans longevity. Nat Commun. 2018 Mar 2;9(1):927.
  2. Di Girolamo N, Reynders RM. Health care articles with simple and declarative titles were more likely to be in the Altmetric Top 100. J Clin Epidemiol. 2017 May 1;85:32–6.
  3. Aronson J. When I use a word… Declarative titles. QJM. 2009 Jun 29;103(3):207–9.
  4. Bushkin GG, Pincus D, Morgan JT, Richardson K, Lewis C, Chan SH, Bartel DP, Fink GR. m6A modification of a 3′ UTR site reduces RME1 mRNA levels to promote meiosis. Nat Commun. 2019;10.
  5. Szarek M, White HD, Schwartz GG, Alings M, Bhatt DL, Bittner VA, Chiang CE, Diaz R, Edelberg JM, Goodman SG, Hanotin C. Alirocumab reduces total nonfatal cardiovascular and fatal events: the ODYSSEY OUTCOMES trial. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2019 Jan 28;73(4):387–96.
  6. Bemben MA, Nguyen TA, Li Y, Wang T, Nicoll RA, Roche KW. Isoform-specific cleavage of neuroligin-3 reduces synapse strength. Mol Psychiatry. 2019 Jan;24(1):145.
  7. Devin JL, Hill MM, Mourtzakis M, Quadrilatero J, Jenkins DG, Skinner TL. Acute high intensity interval exercise reduces colon cancer cell growth. J Physiol. 2019 Apr;597(8):2177–84.
  8. Parhizkar S, Arzberger T, Brendel M, Kleinberger G, Deussing M, Focke C, Nuscher B, Xiong M, Ghasemigharagoz A, Katzmarski N, Krasemann S. Loss of TREM2 function increases amyloid seeding but reduces plaque-associated ApoE. Nat Neurosci. 2019 Feb;22(2):191.
  9. McKinley JW, Shi Z, Kawikova I, Hur M, Bamford IJ, Devi SP, Vahedipour A, Darvas M, Bamford NS. Dopamine deficiency reduces striatal cholinergic interneuron function in models of Parkinson’s Disease. Neuron. 2019 Jul 16.
  10. Harmon-Jones C, Hinton E, Tien J, Summerell E, Bastian B. Pain offset reduces rumination in response to evoked anger and sadness. J Per Soc Psychol. 2019 Mar 7.
  11. Grandey AA, Houston III L, Avery DR. Fake it to make it? Emotional labor reduces the racial disparity in service performance judgments. J Manag. 2019 May;45(5):2163–92.
  12. Shueb SS, Erb SJ, Lunzer MM, Speltz R, Harding-Rose C, Akgün E, Simone DA, Portoghese PS. Targeting MOR-mGluR5 heteromers reduces bone cancer pain by activating MOR and inhibiting mGluR5. Neuropharmacology. 2019 Jul 1:107690.
  13. Moore AL, Duoto BA, Mascharak S, Murphy MP, Irizarry DM, Foster DS, Jones RE, Barnes LA, Marshall CD, Ransom RC, Wernig G. Doxycycline reduces scar thickness and improves collagen architecture. Ann Surg. 2019 May 9.

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