Writing scientific articles in the era of the search engine: gonna change my way of thinking

In this post Senior Editor Phil Stephens discusses what he learnt about search engine optimization in a workshop at the BES annual meeting 2015.

As a green and eternally juvenile PhD student at the end of the last millennium, I was delighted with the directive – from one of the group’s postdocs[1] – to lace my first presentation at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting with specific phrases that he supplied. I don’t remember them all but I do recall that the morphology of the alpine marmot (Fig. 1), my study species at the time, was to be described as nothing more than ‘resembling one of a pair of novelty slippers’. I complied with the instruction, seemingly to my benefit: the talk went down very well with the session chair (who also happened to be judging the student talks).

alpine marmot
Fig. 1. An alpine marmot (Marmota marmota). Very cosy, but wearing one on each foot can put strain on the knees. [Photo downloaded from https://pixabay.com/en/marmot-alpine-rodent-alpine-marmot-1049278/ and in the public domain].
Unsurprisingly, this geeky brand of mischief is far from restricted to ecologists. Indeed, it now transpires that a team of biomedical researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden has, since 1997, been sneaking the lyrics of Bob Dylan songs into their publications (e.g. see this Guardian article from 2014) (Fig. 2). A recent analysis, reported in the British Medical Journal (Gornitzki et al. 2015), identified 213 biomedical papers that unequivocally cited Dylan. These go back to an article in the Journal of Practical Nursing, written in 1970. The authors of the most recent analysis found that “The times they are a-changin’” was the most frequently referenced Dylan song, followed by “Blowin’ in the wind”.

bob dylan
Fig. 2. Bob Dylan: a source of inspiration to musicians and scientists alike. [Photo credit: Xavier Badosa (https://www.flickr.com/photos/badosa/9488661840); released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license].
It’s tempting to assume that an imaginative or culturally-informed article title will stick in the mind, bringing the work to life and making it more likely to be recalled when others in the field search for a reference to support a relevant assertion. In that light, perhaps the most surprising thing about the work of Gornitzki et al. is the finding that articles citing Bob Dylan are actually cited slightly less than similar articles that did not do so. What might this tell us about the role of wit and humour in scientific publication? The answer, it seems, might be partially related to something called “search engine optimisation”.

At the recent BES annual meeting in Edinburgh, I was asked to attend a lunchtime workshop on “Search engine optimisation and why it matters”. This wasn’t an invitation that I greeted with much enthusiasm – but I dutifully went along. I’m glad I did! The session was organised by members of the BES Publications team and chaired by Chris Grieves of Methods in Ecology and Evolution. The concept of search engine optimisation was introduced by Charlie Rapple of Kudos.

Charlie began by pointing out two obvious facts: first, that recent years have seen rapid increases in the number of scientific articles being published; and, second, that researchers are changing the way that they look for articles. When I was a postgraduate, most of my colleagues subscribed to key journals in the field (or sought them out in the library) and, with each new issue, would leaf through the contents to find important new articles in their field. With increasing access to the internet, many of us would browse journal contents online, or subscribe to email updates of new content. Not any longer. These days, for a major publisher like Wiley, nearly 60% of internet traffic comes directly from a search engine, and nearly 90% of that comes from Google. Google typically delivers search results in batches of ten and, according to Charlie, most researchers don’t look beyond the first page of results. The consequence is that, if your article isn’t among the ten most relevant articles found by a given search term, it won’t be read and it won’t be cited. This means that the traditional academic culture of ‘Publish or Perish’ must give way to one of ‘Discoverability or Death’. It also means that understanding how Google’s searches work is important!

So, what can we do to increase the discoverability of our work? It turns out that there are some tips – several of which fly in the face of received wisdom.

Charlie’s advice focused on three parts of the paper: keywords, title and abstract. The keywords are the most important element to get right to maximise your article’s discoverability. They should be neither too broad nor too narrow – but what Charlie would term ‘Goldilocks keywords’. You are not restricted to single words and short phrases are perfectly acceptable. Don’t include obscure words that no-one will search for but do include keywords or phrases that might be sought by researchers in other disciplines to which your work is relevant. A good trick is to try searching for various keywords or terms to see what comes up. If you think the search results would be appropriate company for your paper, then the keyword is probably relevant. Ideally, some of the keywords would be terms that have been used frequently throughout your article. Presumably, even if – like a certain colleague of mine – you have strong feelings about grammatical rectitude, you might have to suppress that to increase discoverability. After all, a compound noun, like “climate change” is 50-100 times more frequently used than the alternative (and, to some, preferable) “climatic change”.

A discoverable title should be short (aim for 50 to 140 characters). Often, search engines will show only the first part of the title, so make sure that the start of the title really nails what the article is about. Importantly, the title should also include two or three of your most important keywords. This was news to me and to several other journal editors with whom I’ve subsequently discussed it. Indeed, received wisdom is that keywords that are also found in the title are redundant. Now, it seems, keywords that are found in the title help to guide search engines to the correct classification of the paper. Even more importantly, especially for Dylan fans, Charlie suggests suppressing your creative urges when writing your title. Specifically, puns, proverbs or pop-culture references should be avoided – although they might be useful for Twitter-aficionados subsequently advertising their published paper. Including “the answer is blowing in the wind” in your article title might be satisfying – but it might also mean that you article is more likely to be picked up by meteorologists than those in your focal discipline. If you must indulge your wit in the context of a title, put it after the colon; this way, at least, you front-load your title with the most relevant phrases.

The title and keywords will be the most important elements in the eyes of a search engine. However, your abstract or summary will be close behind. Here, you have to navigate your way around three different pressures. First, you should make sure that your most important keywords are repeated several times throughout your abstract; this will increase the perceived relevance of your article when one of those keywords is searched for. Second, you shouldn’t over-use your keywords: search engines usually have sophisticated algorithms to spot when they are being manipulated! Third, you need to remember that the most important thing is to write for your reader in a clear and informative manner, not simply for a search engine!

As discussed in a blog post for Wiley, all of this is going to require a bit more work. Who will do that work? Well, it’s in the interests of authors, editors and publishers alike (indeed, all writers and critics) to ensure that their work achieves higher visibility. At any one time, however, editors and publishers are likely to be dealing with many more papers than any individual author. Thus, much of the responsibility for increasing discoverability will reside with individual authors. After all, to give the final word to the inevitable Bob Dylan: most researchers “Don’t wanna miss nobody, don’t wanna be missed”[2].

[1] Now a carefully anonymised but rather senior figure at Sheffield University.

[2] With thanks to Dr J.P. Stephens for pointing me to the most apposite lyrics.


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