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Crafting an Appropriate Running Title for Your Scientific Paper

What should your approach be to crafting a running title? Should it be catchy? Abbreviated? What do editors look for?

Many journals require that a running title, also known as a running head or short title, be included in submitted manuscripts. This shortened form of the main title, usually cited at the top of each published page of an article, serves to guide readers browsing a print journal, shuffling loose printed pages, or toggling between multiple papers in PDF form. The running head may also be used in RSS feeds and mobile applications instead of the frequently more unwieldy main title.

Requirements for running titles vary between journals, but generally, they must be 50-60 characters long at most, often including spaces. To achieve brevity, these titles typically include abbreviations, even if the main title does not (or cannot, based on journal guidelines). Articles (the, a, an) may also be omitted to conserve characters, and wordy phrasing, including filler phrases, should be minimized. However, if the main title is brief enough, it can function as the running head as well.

Unlike for the manuscript title itself, being catchy is not a priority for a running title. Rather, because it is so abbreviated, clarity and accuracy should be priorities. Some also suggest that as much content as possible should be preserved from the main title, although in practice, this approach is not widespread; authors instead tend to include only what they deem most important to highlight.

The following is an example of effective title abridgment, drawn from a recently published article (Lambert et al., 2013; CC-BY license):

  • Manuscript title: Dendritic Cell Immunoreceptor Is a New Target for Anti-AIDS Drug Development: Identification of DCIR/HIV-1 Inhibitors (117 ch with spaces, 103 ch without spaces)
  • Running title: Inhibitors of DCIR Limit HIV-1 Infection (40 characters with spaces, 35 characters without spaces)

The authors combined a few strategies here to reduce the title length by two thirds, applying the abbreviation “DCIR,” omitting articles (“DCIR” instead of “the DCIR”), and focusing on what they judged to be the central concept (the limitation of HIV-1 infection by the inhibitors, rather than the novelty of the target, the application in drug development, or the identification process). Of course, this task may be easier for papers with a narrower and more descriptive focus, such as review articles.

We hope that this editing tip has clarified what a running title is and how to approach writing one. Please email us with any questions or comments. We wish you the best in your manuscript writing!

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