Abbreviations in Figures: Saving Space but Frustrating Readers?

The unnecessary use of abbreviations in figures can make a paper more difficult to read and may be particularly troublesome for journal reviewers.

Updated on May 1, 2016

Frustrating and messy hand drawn charts and graphs

Abbreviations are a staple of science, and it is rare to find a scientific paper that does not use any. Abbreviations certainly reduce the wordiness of complex sentences, but they are probably most embraced for their ability to reduce the word count of a manuscript.

The use of abbreviations often carries over into the design of the figures in a paper, but the unnecessary use of abbreviations in figures can make a paper more difficult to read. Abbreviations in figures may be particularly troublesome for journal reviewers, who often receive the manuscript with the figure legends separate from the figures.

While this discussion is focused on preparing figures for a manuscript, avoiding unnecessary abbreviations in your figure design will also pay benefits when those same figures are used to prepare a poster or oral presentation. In such cases, figure legends are minimized or non-existent, and the audience often has a very limited amount of time to grasp the meaning of the figure.

Abbreviation use example

But what do we mean by an ‘unnecessary' abbreviation? See the following example:

figure with abbreviations

In this figure, the red and blue data are defined in the legend using abbreviations that are unlikely to be familiar to the reader. There is enough space to expand the abbreviations without increasing the size of the figure:

figure without abbreviations

Clarifying the legend was simple in this example, but avoiding the use of an abbreviation in a figure often creates extra work when you are designing the figure. When should you invest the time and effort to avoid using an abbreviation? To help answer this question, we've divided abbreviations into several classes and provided suggestions for each kind of abbreviation.

Abbreviations that are not used in the text of the manuscript

You should always avoid using an abbreviation that appears in only one or two figures and nowhere else in the paper. These abbreviations will cause any reader to stumble while reading your work and force them to examine the figure legend for a definition to help them understand what the figure is trying to show. This class of abbreviation is even more annoying to reviewers, who will have to flip to another section of the manuscript to find a definition. You never want to create an extra barrier to understanding for your reviewers.

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Abbreviations created within the manuscript

It is more acceptable to use an abbreviation in a figure when it was coined and used within the text of the manuscript, but I would still recommend avoiding it. On the plus side, encountering the abbreviation in the text means that reviewers and readers will be less likely to be confused by the figures. Unfortunately, the figures will still be difficult to understand when separated from the manuscript, which occurs when the figures are previewed in PubMed or downloaded as slides for a talk or journal club.

Abbreviations specific to your immediate field of study

It becomes even more acceptable to use an abbreviation if it is used in the literature by a handful of labs publishing on the topic. Yet, figures with such abbreviations suffer from the same weakness as the class described above when the figures are viewed by scientists outside of your smaller community. Because you probably want your work to be appreciated by more than just your competitors, try to make your figures more accessible to a broader audience by avoiding abbreviations and acronyms specific to your sub-field.

Ubiquitous abbreviations

It is perfectly fine to use an abbreviation that is already widely known. The goal is to make your figures easy to understand, and if the abbreviation is already ubiquitously used within the literature, then including it in a figure makes sense. One example is DAPI, an abbreviation known to virtually everyone in the biomedical field.

We hope that this post helps you decide when to use abbreviations in your figures. AJE wishes you the best of luck with publication!

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