In an article I am writing for the Journal of Chemical Physics we are comparing/contrasting the behavior of methane (i.e CH4) scattering from a bare and oxidized Ni(111) surface.

Often for the purpose of brevity I am tempted to write in a shorthand I find sloppy. I am so far resisting this temptation but I am worried that I may be prioritizing clarity at the cost of efficiency.

To give an example: we present in a single figure angular distributions of methane scattering from the bare Ni(111) surface (marked by red in the plot), which we can refer to without ambiguity as "Ni(111)", and the oxidized nickel surface (marked by blue), which we term "NiO/Ni". I would like to refer to, for brevity, "the NiO/Ni angular distribution", but, read literally, the term is meaningless. The surface alone has no associated distribution, it is only for a scattering system composed of a surface and a scattering molecule that we have defined an associated notion of an angular distribution.

Of course, in a group meeting or informal conversation such language would be acceptable and perhaps preferable. It is also quite likely the average reader of this journal would understand without too much trouble what is meant by term "NiO/Ni angular distribution". However the language still strikes me as sloppy/amateurish, and I find myself opting for wordier phrasing like, "the data measured with the surface oxided".

So it is permissible to include what might be considered "shop-talk"-type language in a journal article for the sake of brevity?

  • 1
    Are your abbreviations widely used in your field? Will they be immediately understood?
    – Buffy
    Jan 29 at 20:58
  • 1
    What do other articles in that journal do? Follow their lead. Jan 29 at 21:04
  • The abbreviation is not widely used. The question is trying to ask something different. I am asking in a sense if it is acceptable to refer to Rover's food dish as the "Rover food dish" as opposed to "the food dish from which Rover eats". The former is succint but slightly ambiguous and therefore sloppy, while the latter is undeniably wordier. One could of course take the trouble to explicitly equate the two terms and thus introduce a shorthand, but cluttering the work with definitions makes the reading just as tiresome. Jan 29 at 22:14

1 Answer 1


As soon as you think about how figures in journal papers get used, I think you will see that you should be judicious about using abbreviations in them.

Although a reader of your article will have the benefit of the text as well as the figures, it is quite possible that your results will be presented at a teaching seminar, or by you at a conference. If that happens, the figures will probably appear without the context of the text. Unless you think your abbreviations will be immediately understood by any likely audience, I strongly suggest that you avoid using abbreviations in any part of the labels on your figures. If that isn't possible (perhaps for reasons of space) then go ahead and use abbreviations in the figure labels but explain them fully in the accompanying figure caption. That way, you maximize the likelihood that your results will not be misunderstood.

I've been surprised sometimes to read what might have been a interesting scientific story in a newspaper or lay-person science magazine, but found that the reporting has been spoiled by the fact that an illustration from the original paper did not include sufficient information to make it independently understandable. Don't let that happen to you.

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