A big aspect of the novelty of our paper is distinguishing among two things which are often conflated, or at least a bit garbled together in some non-standard way per application, within our community. It’d be helpful to explicitly label and identify how we will use these (original, not repurposed) terms ASAP in the paper to bring our readers on board with how we’re tackling the problem.

It’d be useful to have the terms loaded with our meaning to use them in our abstract; so useful that I’m willing to devote the first two sentences of our abstract to this purpose.

Is this appropriate? I haven’t seen it done. I’m also worried that it’s a bit of a buzzkill / alienating to read an abstract which throws new language at you instantly. If may be helpful to know my target audience is engineers and physicians.

My current solution “masks” the definitions a bit:

In this work we draw a distinction between X, [definition X], and Y, [definition Y]. For example, in [example my community knows about] X which is [instance X in example] and Y which is [instance Y in example]. ...

I’m avoiding giving more context as it would be burdensome and make this question less relevant to others who may stumble on it in the future.

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    Without knowing a lot more of the context -- and perhaps even knowing a bit about your field -- I think it will be hard for people to answer this question.
    – Corvus
    Mar 13, 2015 at 13:52
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    That's true, though I worry that giving the context would limit how useful this might be to others. (Additionally, I don't know that I could give unbiased or brief context). Right now I wrote something which seemed to "mask" the definitions a bit: "In this work, we draw a distinction between x, which is this thing, and y, which is this other thing. For example, in this common thing my community all knows about, x is this while y is this other thing ..." Mar 13, 2015 at 14:23

1 Answer 1


Many author guides I am aware of advise to only define something in the abstract, when it’s really needed. For example, Physical Review X advises (boldface mine):

In particular, the abstract and introduction of each article should be written so as to be understandable by a broad spectrum of readers. New terminology should be introduced only when clearly needed. It should be appropriate and, if possible, convey to the reader an accurate impression of its meaning.

Now, you have good arguments to define something in the abstract, but an overzealous editor or referee might still be against it due to interpreting guidelines as rules.

That being said, I have seen new terms introduced in abstracts many times and most of the times this was the better alternative to me – this also applies to interdisciplinary papers relating to medicine. I have rarely seen terms rigorously defined in abstracts though.

Some further remarks on this:

  • The main purpose of your paper is probably not to define these terms but to analyse the differences between them or similar. Most probably there also is a practical benefit of being able to make this distinction other than clarifying communication. This should be your motivation. Also, you should write your abstract (and paper) from this perspective and not from the perspective of introducing a new terminology – which is what your current abstract sounds like to me.

  • Do not start with the definition right away, but motivate it first. It’s not new language that is confusing (at least as long as we are talking about two terms only), it’s unmotivated new language. If you motivate the distinction first, the reader can associate something with the terms and thus better memorise them.

  • By all means, make clear that you are defining something when you do. Nothing is more confusing if you do not know whether something is new terminology or not. The context should make clear that the term is new and, if it’s not unseen in your community, italicise the newly introduced terms.

  • It’s not important to precisely define your concepts in the abstract – you can do that later. Rather give the main distincitive aspects, so that most readers get the central idea to your distinction. Of course, if the definitions are sufficiently concise, you can use them in the abstract.

To distill this into an example abstract, which does not exactly match your case, if I understood it correctly, but should illustrate the idea:

We show that phenomenon Z can occur in two distinct flavours, which exhibit relevant differences in behaviour in [application]: [definition X], which we denote as X, and [definition Y], which we denote as Y. […]

  • Some fantastic food for thought, most of which is relevant (no small feat given the brief context!). Thank you. Mar 13, 2015 at 15:57

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