Using Headings for Structure and Clarity in Successful Journal Articles
When well designed, headings in academic and scientific articles can be far more than just fancy words: they can provide structure and clarity for the anticipated audience and also lend a paper an attractive appearance. When poorly designed, however, they are much less than fancy words, and can not only produce a disorganised layout, but also confuse or mislead readers. Careful thought should therefore be given to the headings you use when you are preparing a paper for submission to a scholarly journal,
By headings I mean primarily part, section and subsection headings used within an article, though the title of the paper and the headings used on tables (and even the captions for figures) might be included as well. Two main considerations should guide the design of headings in an article: the heading types and levels the journal guidelines request, and the heading types and levels your paper requires. Generally, if you have chosen the journal wisely and worked to write an appropriate paper for it, these two requirements will be the same or very similar, making it easy to follow journal recommendations. Examine the author instructions carefully to ensure that you use the wording, styles (special fonts, punctuation etc.) and numbering required, keeping in mind that it is essential to maintain consistency across each level of heading and distinction between the different levels. If the length of headings or number of heading levels is limited by the guidelines, work within those limits.
Although some guidelines are very detailed and specific, others are not, and even the more rigid instructions usually allow more flexibility at lower heading levels. If your paper is particularly complex or its aims, methods or results would be enhanced for readers by more extensive division, do take advantage of this flexibility, ensuring that your headings are clear and concise in all cases, as well as interesting and engaging. It is also best to avoid abbreviations in headings – if you must use them, do be sure to define them early on in the text that follows – and notes are better attached to the sentences within a section than the heading above it. Finally, headings for tables and captions for figures should be clear and informative while meeting journal requirements, and if a structured abstract is needed, be sure to format the headings within it appropriately as well.
To be sure your headings are effective, have a colleague or professional proofreader read the paper once you have the headings laid out. It is sometimes surprising what will prove unclear or confusing for readers who do not know the material as you do, but such surprises can lead to revisions that improve the structure and clarity of your article for the journal editor and peer reviewers who will be considering it. Remember, too, that effective and consistent spacing around headings can help give your paper an appealing appearance and make your efforts to meet journal guidelines more immediately apparent.
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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.