As we all know, you typically abbreviate something the first time that particular term shows up in a paper. However, I've been told in the past that certain things in a paper should be written in such a way that 'it stands on its own'. One such thing would include the abstract of the paper. So, perhaps a <STRING> appears in the abstract that I want to abbreviate. Now one of two things can happen.

1.) If <STRING> appears more than once in the abstract, I could abbreviate the first instance and then just use the abbreviation from that point on.

2.) If <STRING> appears only ONCE in the abstract, then I shouldn't abbreviate it because then I would have defined an abbreviation that I would not have used again (given the concept of 'the abstract should be able to stand on its own).

The problem with (2) is that people will immediately think that the 'first instance' of <STRING> should be abbreviated and don't immediately consider the 'stand-alone' idea so I'm either having to revise or try to put up a convincing argument for what I did.

Also, I've been told by some that tables and figures should be able to 'stand on their own'. So, if the abbreviation for <STRING> appears in the table somewhere (or the caption), then I should explicitly spell out <STRING> and then define an abbreviation for it right then and there, even if I have already done so earlier on in the text of the paper.

So, my question is, what is the proper way of handling these abbreviations and is the idea of 'this piece must be able to stand on its own' valid (and if its valid, what exactly does this idea apply to)?

Additional Information:

I am a computational chemist so we pretty much are forced to use the alphabet-soup of acronyms. MP2 is preferred over "second-order Moller-Plesset perturbation theory" and is commonly used. CCSD(T) is preferred over "The coupled-cluster method that includes all single and double substitutions as well as a perturbative treatment of the connected triple excitations". The list can go on and on. If this wasn't abbreviated in an abstract, having to 'spell it out' even a few times would make for an incredibly long abstract, figure caption, table, etc.

4 Answers 4


The first comment will be, do not abbreviate just because something occurs more than once. Abbreviations other than established ones (within your field) such as DNA, EDTA make reading more difficult. Of course all established abbreviation were new at some point but the message is, be restrictive. I understand your field may be in need of many abbreviations so make adjustments to these general comments accordingly.

Now as for the abstract, I would recommend to not abbreviate anything even if it occurs more than once or twice (again barring established abbreviations). The abstract should be seen as a separable part which is (hopefully read) by a wider audience than the paper itself. If you need to abbreviate something in the paper, do so in the main paper as the "first occurrence".

Tables and figures should be made to stand alone if possible (which probably is 80+% of the time). Often figures and tables may be the parts others take up when they describe your work. To have self-explanatory figures and tables is thus useful. With a table the table caption should be an integral part so I think it is reasonable to have abbreviations in the table body as long as the abbreviations are explained in the table caption. The same could apply to figures as well but I would go further and aim for making the graphics along self-explanatory even without its caption.

  • I have updated my question to deal with this response. Jan 30, 2014 at 15:19
  • I have updated my answer to keep the general recommendations but highlight the need for field related adjustments. Jan 30, 2014 at 15:23

In my opinion the general rule is that abbreviations should be used exactly when they make reading easier; in particular, in some circumstances it will be easier to understand a sentence when a long term is abbreviated (provided the abbreviation has been defined of course). The same rule should apply in abstract and captions, except that the cost (in term of reading comfort) of having to look for the meaning of the abbreviation is usually greater.

The problem comes from the fact that we tend to use abbreviations when they make writing easier (or quicker), and this does not coincide with reading easiness.

  • If the abbreviation is so common that people use it instead of its real meaning (e.g. I'd call EDTA EDTA, but if I'm asked for the spelled-out name I mentally reconstruct that from the structure of EDTA - as opposed to knowing ethylenediamintetraaceticacid and reconstructing the structure from that) I'd use the abbreviation in the abstract.
  • If the abbreviation is really common, but not the "primary name" of the thing in question, I'd spend that one word in the abstract and give both.
  • Otherwise, I'm a big fan of a table of abbreviations. That way it is much easier for a reader who is not deeply familiar with the field to find the meaning than to search through the text to where the abbreviation first occurred.

See also: Shall acronyms in scientific papers be expanded exactly once?


I would write it out in full the first time that it appears in the abstract, and again the first time that it appears in the main text. This isn't authoritative, however, it's simply what "seems right" to me. The abstract needs to stand on its own, and the introduction should also make sense to somebody who hasn't just read the abstract.

Additionally, as some have said, in some fields there may be abbreviations that are so generally accepted that there is no need to expand them. To pick something that is not field-dependant, nobody would expect an author to spell out LASER or RADAR.

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