Declarative titles in original research papers in dermatologic journals 1974–2014

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Editor

There are three main types of titles of scientific papers: descriptive, i.e. describing the study without revealing the results; declarative, i.e. stating the main findings or conclusions; and interrogative, i.e. introducing the subject in form of a question.[1, 2] Many leading medical journals, including JAMA, New England Journal of Medicine and BMJ, do not accept declarative titles in original research papers. Other journals encourage them. The use of declarative titles seems to be increasing, both in clinical and non-clinical reports,[3] but has not been studied in dermatology.

Selecting the ten top-ranking journals in dermatology (according to 5-year impact factor for 2012), we registered the titles of all original research papers in the first issue of each journal for every 5-year period from 1974 to 2014 from the journals' web sites and/or Medline. Similar to a survey of clinical trial reports in 1970–97,[3] we categorized the titles as declarative or non-declarative based on the presence or absence of an active word, such as is, increases, reduces, inhibits, promotes, etc.

In 1974 and 1979, no original research paper in the selected dermatologic journals (i.e. in those established at the time) had a declarative title (Fig. 1). From 2004, approximately one-third of the original research papers had a declarative title, most of them in journals primarily publishing basic science and laboratory research (Table 1).

Table 1. Declarative titles in original research papers in ten top-ranking dermatologic journals' first issue in 2014
 TotalDeclarative title
n n %
Journal of Investigative Dermatology271452
Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research10440
JAMA Dermatology700
Journal of the American Acadamy of Dermatology1300
British Journal of Dermatology15320
Journal of Dermatological Science9444
Wound Repair and Regeneration11436
Acta Dermato-Venereologica13323
Experimental Dermatology6233
Contact Dermatitis700
Total1183429
Figure 1.

The percentage of original research papers with a declarative title in ten top-ranking dermatologic journals' first issue of each 5-year period from 1974 to 2014.

Are declarative titles in original research papers a good or a bad thing? Proponents of declarative titles, preferring the term informative titles, often state a wish to attract more attention and to convey the conclusion of the study to as many readers as possible.[1] However, a declarative title may be misleading when the authors' conclusion is questionable or may imply a generalizability of the study that is unwarranted. All studies have limitations, weaknesses and biases, making the findings open for interpretation, discussion and speculation. According to the popperian model of hypothesis-based science, a hypothesis can only be supported or rejected, not proven. The results of one study needs to be confirmed by more studies, and many studies in biomedicine are later found to be non-replicable or even false.[4]

Science cannot tell us the truth, only what is less and less wrong.[5] This applies both for clinical trials and for basic science and laboratory research. It is the essence of scientific thinking. We support an editorial policy of restricting the use of declarative titles in original research papers.

There will be different views on what makes a good title.[1, 2] In our opinion, a good title is one that with the fewest possible words adequately describes the contents of the paper. The title should attract the attention and interest of potential readers. Authors should devote considerable efforts in writing a good title for their scientific paper.

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