Acronyms in Paper Titles

What is your opinion of acronyms in the titles of papers? A scan of the titles of recently published papers (in the last month or so) reveals that nearly half of all papers have an undefined acronym in its title. Most of these are obvious, or at least should be obvious to those in our field, like IMF and MHD. Others are not so obvious, but can be figured out in context. The winner, in my view, is one that is currently highlighted in the top image-scroll at the JGR-Space Physics page, starting out with “Coordinated SuperDARN THEMIS ASI observations…” Three in a row!


While I am not opposed to acronyms in paper titles, I think that we as a community should be very cautious about their use. You should always define an acronym the first time you use it in the paper and, separately, the first time you use it in the Abstract (because this is a stand-alone paragraph). Some advocate defining the acronym at the first usage within each section of a paper, but I think that this is overkill. Perhaps a second definition in the Conclusions section is useful because many people skip to that part of the paper first. The point is that acronyms should be defined, and their usage in the title is therefore, awkward, because you usually don’t want to increase the title length to define an acronym. With the title, the authors should be striving for brevity but also clarity. Scientists are known for their love of jargon and, in my opinion, acronyms in titles further perpetuate this stereotype. Furthermore, they usually don’t help very much with the understandability of your paper’s content for people outside of your specialty.

Again, from my glance through the list of recent paper titles, I see that most of the acronyms refer to something having to do with the methodology. They refer to the data set used, the model technique employed, the spacecraft or observing platform, or a location (e.g., at 1 AU). Rarely do the acronyms refer to the scientific finding in the paper, which is perhaps a better focus of the paper title rather than on the methodology. My point is that you can probably find another way to phrase the title that doesn’t use an acronym by highlighting the scientific result rather than the technique used to obtain it.

Therefore, I encourage all of you to think hard about the use of acronyms in paper titles and seek out ways to remove them so that the title is more accessible to a larger audience. I will not reject your manuscript based on acronyms in the title, but, from now on, I and the other editors might ask you to consider rewriting your paper title into something that doesn’t use acronyms.

Before you accuse me of hypocrisy, a quick scan of the titles of my papers shows that I have used Dst, MGS MAG/ER, and GEM IM/S. In my defense, though, the last time I used an acronym in a title of my first-author papers was in 2006 (unless I overlooked one in my quick scan). I try not to use acronyms in titles anymore and I actively encourage my coauthors to rewrite titles to avoid acronym use. I hope that you do the same.


4 thoughts on “Acronyms in Paper Titles

  1. Mike,
    This is a great point and something to keep in mind when we are working with students, even graduate students. Students just starting in the field are not familiar with the wide array of missions, instruments, and techniques, so the acronyms are meaningless. We should also be aware of how we are modeling “being a scientist” for students. If students see senior scientists speaking in an incomprehensible code all the time, and describing their results by the technique they use, then students will think that is the way a scientist should act, and try to mimic it.

    I have a counter-intuitive suggestions for introducing acronyms in a paper. It is common practice to spell out the name first in the text and then give the acronym in parentheses. I always find this breaks up the flow of the text and emphasizes the full name, which we are then going to immediately replace with the acronym. I suggest the opposite, introducing the acronym and then giving the definition as an aside. For example, “In this paper we will model the solar wind using MHD (Magnetohydrodynamics).” This helps the flow for those in the know, but provides a reminder for the uninitiated or those who need a reminder. I don’t know that this is actually better, but I think it reads better then the other way around.


  2. I recommend the use of a little bit of technology for the web versions of papers: use a trivial bit of javascript to pop-up on mouseover a bubble with an acronym’s definition anywhere in a paper after its initial definition. Potentially, the latex class could contain an acronym definition that authors would use once for each acronym in a paper’s preamble, and this could be used to aid the publishing software in embedding the javascript for each occurrence.

  3. Pingback: Paper Titles | Notes from the JGR-Space Physics Editor-in-Chief

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