Abbreviations in Scientific Writing: Friend or Foe

A version of this editorial originally appeared in ACS Sensors.

A couple of years back the journals ACS Nano, Chemistry of Materials, and Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters assembled a virtual issue of editorials called Mastering the Art of Scientific Publication—20 Papers for 20/20 Vision About Publishing. The issue covers the entire journey of a paper from writing the cover letter, who should be the corresponding author, to figure presentation and how to craft a paper to respond to the referee’s reports. Personally I really like this virtual issue and read papers in it often to clarify certain points I need reminding of. I also frequently recommend it to the research team I lead. As the 20 editorials cover a huge spectrum of the publishing and writing process, when I first read the issue I thought it would be hard to add anything of substance to the body of views expressed in that issue. However, like language and science itself, scientific writing and presentation evolves and not all the changes are for the betterment of a clear, easily understood paper. I think we would all agree that we want people to read and understand our papers. Therefore, clarity in our writing is paramount. This brings me to the topic of this editorial: Abbreviations. It seems to me that authors are using more and more abbreviations, and three letter acronyms (also known as TLAs), in papers I read.

So, is this a problem? This is a good question because abbreviations are part of the DNA of chemistry. We have abbreviations of course for chemical naming and symbols for chemical structures. These abbreviations make the imparting of chemical knowledge a lot easier, and we all learn them during our training. But that is the point: we all learn them. If I put Au on the page you instantly know this is gold. You do not take a second thought in the very same way you did not stop and ponder what DNA meant. For me it is a problem if we are making up abbreviations—and this is what is happening. I have seen acronyms for gold nanoparticles such as AuNPs, GNPs, and GNBs. The latter is gold nanobeads, if you were wondering. AuNP at least is obvious what it means, but why would you ever abbreviate gold to G? Even more strange, I have seen five letter words abbreviated to a three letter acronym.

Why do we do this? The established abbreviations in chemistry of course make it much easier to present science, and actually easier to read science. I think people make up their own acronyms for a number of reasons. Sometimes they have developed a new technique and give it a catchy name that arises from an acronym. This can be remarkably successful at getting that technique accepted and/or remembered. Nuclear magnetic resonance is incredibly successful at this, with techniques such as COSY and NOESY. However, often the abbreviations are used to ease the burden on the typist. I do not see the merit of this. If we assume the purpose of a paper is to transmit new knowledge, then clarity for the reader is more important than ease of typing for the writer. In some fields of biology, the number of acronyms are such that a new entrant to a field finds the paper almost impenetrable. Worse still, made-up acronyms can even confuse the reader when they are the same initials as a very common abbreviation in a related, or the same, field. I have seen papers on electrochemical DNA sensors where MB is used as an abbreviation for magnetic beads; but at the same time in electrochemical DNA sensors, MB is often used for one of the most frequently used redox labels, methylene blue. So when I read MB for DNA sensors, I am just confused.

So, I feel we, as authors, should limit the use of abbreviations and acronyms. Apart from established abbreviations, in my group we have one three letter acronym that I try to convince the team to use: DNA. It stands for DO NOT ABBREVIATE. Or is it definitely no acronyms?