Using Abbreviations In An Academic Article

When writing an academic article, abbreviations and acronyms should typically be defined at first use in the Abstract, main text, and again in the figures and tables. This includes abbreviations that may be commonly known in your field and abbreviations that may be unique to your text (like abbreviations for treatments or cultivars). Journals request that abbreviations be defined because this helps those outside of your field, students, or readers simply unaware of the abbreviation to understand the meaning of the text. Writing out abbreviations also prevents ambiguity and confusion.

Some abbreviations should always be defined at first use. An example of this is a genus name, which should be written out at first use and then can be abbreviated in the remainder of the text (although sometimes not at the start of sentences). Treatment names, chemical or media names, disease names, and gene names should generally be defined at first use.

Note that abbreviations shouldn’t be used (and the word or term should be written out in full) if the abbreviation is used fewer than three times.

However, some very common abbreviations may not need to be defined at first use.

Examples of common abbreviations that may not need to be defined at first use:

  • DNA

  • RNA

  • PCR

  • US or USA

  • Metric units used as a measurement, e.g., m, cm, mL

What is an abbreviations list?

In addition to defining abbreviations at first use, some journals require an abbreviations list. This list may be a separate document or be included as a section at the beginning of the main text document. An abbreviations list should include the abbreviation and the term written out in full. An abbreviations list should typically be written in alphabetical order. For example, an abbreviations list may look like this:

Abbreviations: Count.: county; NUE: nitrogen use efficiency; Prov.: province; SNP: single nucleotide polymorphism; USDA: United States Department of Agriculture; WUE: water use efficiency

Quick tips for abbreviations:

  • Uncommon or unique abbreviations should always be defined at first use

  • Define abbreviations in the Abstract, again in the main text, and in the figures and tables

  • Common abbreviations, such as DNA or RNA, may not need to be defined

  • Check the author guidelines of the target journal as each journal has different requirements

  • Determine whether an abbreviations list is required by checking the author guidelines

  • Some journals give a “common abbreviations list.” Check the guidelines to determine if this list is available

  • Genus names should always be written out at first use

  • If you are unsure whether or not an abbreviation is considered common, I’d suggest writing it out at first use

Need help editing your text?

If you are still having a difficult time revising your text and ensuring that all abbreviations are defined, please feel free to contact me at egeorgian[at]gmail[.]com. We'll work together to get your paper ready for submission.