Two Pointers for Writing an Abstract for an Academic Journal Article

When writing an abstract, remember that the purpose of the abstract is to aid general readers who are trying to decide if they want to read your paper. To this end, the abstract should be comprehensive and clear to a general audience.

The following two rules, which are frequently cited by academic journals, may be useful reminders that you write the abstract for a general audience:

  1. Do not use abbreviations or acronyms.
  2. Do not use citations.

What are abbreviations and acronyms?

Writers tend to abbreviate to save space and because it is tiresome to write out the same long term repeatedly. A good example of a long term that may work better in a circle of peers is M.A.P.I.S. (Microcomputer-Based Automated Projection System). Examples of acronyms are CMS (Chicago Manual of Style), BLM (Bureau of Land Management), and so on.

No abbreviations or acronyms or references in the abstract

The problem with using acronyms and abbreviations in the abstract is that your audience may be unfamiliar with them. Because the use of acronyms and abbreviations in the abstract works against clarity and can actually confuse your readers, you should not use them unless absolutely necessary. References also can make a brief, self-contained text harder to read and take up valuable space. Therefore, many style guides and journals expressly state that authors should not use acronyms and abbreviations and references in the abstract.

Style convention for abbreviations and acronyms

Generally, you would treat acronyms and abbreviations in the same way. For example, it is a standard publishing convention to define acronyms and abbreviations — to write them out fully on first reference followed by the acronym or abbreviation in parentheses on first reference — if you will use the term more than once (and that number may vary depending on your style guide). But if you will not use the term again, there is no need to provide the acronym or abbreviation.

Abbreviations accepted as words

Some abbreviations are so widely known that you can safely use them without defining them. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th Edition, for example, states that if the abbreviation appears as a word entry (not labeled abbr) in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, you may use it as an abbreviation and do not need to define it on first usage. Examples of such abbreviations that do not need explanation in text are IQ, REM, HIV, and AIDS.

Exceptions can be the rule

As they say, nothing is written in stone. You probably can use one or two abbreviations or acronyms in the abstract if they are key terms or you have used the abbreviation in the title. To be on the safe side, however, check your target journal’s submission guidelines.

In-text citations in the abstract

Like abbreviations and acronyms, in-text citations can make an abstract harder to read and use up your limited word allowance. But if the literature is critical, and you must cite it, then you should use citations, albeit sparingly. Follow your style guide’s citation rules.

Guiding principles for abstract writing

As always, check your journal’s guidelines on using citations, abbreviations, and acronyms in abstracts. Be sure to check abbreviations in the dictionary your style guide recommends, and follow your style guide’s rules on acronyms (punctuation usage varies with different style guides). Finally, as you write the abstract, remember the guiding principle that  abstract for general readers who may know nothing of your field.