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Editing Tip: When to Use Abbreviations

This article covers field-specific abbreviations and when to define them based on journal requirements.

Technical fields are loaded with abbreviations and acronyms whose meanings experts take for granted. In a manuscript, it may be especially tempting to abbreviate terms to meet word count targets and to make otherwise long sentences more readable. However, abbreviation overuse can instead reduce readability, forcing a non-specialist reader to pause and refer back to the original definition. Having to puzzle through an abundance of abbreviations can also be a deterrent for non-native English speakers and a shortcoming for peer reviewers. In another post, we explained why abbreviation overuse in figures is problematic; here, we specify when and when not to use abbreviations in your manuscript as a whole.

Your decision of whether to apply an abbreviation should be based on your answers to three questions:

How commonly is the abbreviation used in your field?

Many journals do not require definitions of abbreviations that are pervasive in the literature, based on the assumption that most readers will already be aware of their meaning. In these cases, the editors often provide a list of specific abbreviations, including units of measure, that do not need to be spelled out, even at first mention (e.g., this table of terms compiled by the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), such as “ATP,” “ELISA,” “MAPK,” and “siRNA”). If your target journal does not supply a list, consider referring to its previously published papers for guidance on which abbreviations are considered standard. In contrast, non-standard abbreviations include those that are highly field specific and those that you have coined for the first time in the manuscript, such as a nickname for an experimental group.

How frequently will the abbreviation be used in your manuscript?

The rule of thumb detailed by The Chicago Manual of Style (subscription required) is that an abbreviation should be used five or more times in a manuscript; if its mention is more infrequent, then you should cite only the unabbreviated term. Certain journals may have lower cutoffs, including PLOS ONE, which specifies that “Non-standard abbreviations should not be used unless they appear at least three times in the text.” The Journal of Experimental Medicine and the Journal of Immunology, among others, present similar guidelines.

In what part of your manuscript will the abbreviation be used?

Abbreviation use in the title, abstract, and/or keyword list of a paper may be discouraged by journals to enhance clarity, especially because these features are commonly used when searching for and browsing articles. For example, PLOS ONE explicitly states that abbreviations should not be employed in the title and abstract. Other journals may restrict use in these specific parts of the manuscript to a small subset of ubiquitous terms (e.g., this table of abbreviations that can be included in titles in the JBC). A special case is when you incorporate an abbreviation in your manuscript title because the full term is particularly cumbersome, which could be addressed by providing context to aid understanding (as in “the transcription factor SREBP-1” instead of “sterol regulatory element-binding protein-1”).

If you have decided to use a particular abbreviation based on your responses to the above questions, note that it typically should be defined upon first mention in both the abstract and the main text and then applied consistently throughout the remainder of the respective sections. If you are using many abbreviations and the journal allows it, consider also including a list of abbreviations and their meanings in the manuscript in addition to, but not in lieu of, the definitions in the text itself.

Today’s editing tip has hopefully elucidated when and when not to use abbreviations and acronyms, ensuring a balance between conciseness and readability. If you have any comments or questions on this topic, please email us. We wish you the best in your research and writing!

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