Acronyms In Research Papers

When and when not to use acronyms and initialisms

There is a time and place for everything and using initialisms and acronyms is no exception. The whole point of using these forms of abbreviation in your business writing is to make your writing clearer. However, if you misuse or abuse initialisms and/or acronyms, you'll accomplish just the opposite, turning your memos and manuals into a confusing brew.

What is an initialism?

Essentially, initialisms are shorter forms of words or phrases that can come in handy when you need to repeat the same word or phrase a number of times throughout the same piece of writing. They are pronounced as a series of letters. For example, "World Trade Organization" is often written as "WTO." You can see how writing the three-letter initialism can save you a lot of time and keep your business document from sounding repetitive.

What is an acronym?

An acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of a name or phrase. It is pronounced as if it were a word. Examples of common acronyms include "SARS" (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and "UNICEF" (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund)—imagine having to write that out each time in a 10-page document on the organization's initiative to improve educational opportunities for young girls in Africa!

Important things to consider before using an initialism or acronym

Outline what the initialism or acronym means

Short forms aren't always the best way to avoid redundancies. So, if you're going to use initialisms and/or acronyms in your business writing, remember: The first time you use an initialism or acronym in your document, the words should be written out with the short form placed in parentheses immediately after. This way, it's clear to the readers exactly what the letters mean. Here's an example:

A New World Order (NWO) came into effect after 9/11.

Be consistent

Readers will then be aware that any future reference to the "NWO" in your document really refers to the New World Order. After you've established an initialism or acronym in your paper, you must consistently use the short form in place of the words.

Stick to one definition of the initialism or acronym

Always clarify in your own mind the exact definition of each acronym you use. If you define SEM as "scanning electron microscopy" (which is a process), your acronym should refer only to the process throughout your paper. For example, the following sentence would be incorrect if included in the same paper:

We used an SEM in our experiments.

If you've already defined SEM as standing for the process, you cannot use SEM to refer to the item (i.e., a scanning electron microscope, which you use to perform the process of scanning electron microscopy), even though the first letters of each word are the same. In short, the same initialism or acronym can only refer to one thing in a document.

Don't forget about using articles

Remember that many initialisms or acronyms still require articles (i.e., "a," "an," or "the"). Let's use the New World Order again:

Incorrect: NWO has emerged in the 21st century.

Correct: An NWO has emerged in the 21st century.

Remember that NWO stands for a noun "New World Order," and nouns require articles before them.

If you're confused about whether to use "a" or "an" in front of an initialism or acronym that begins with a consonant, remember to speak the abbreviated form aloud. If the first letter of the initialism or acronym makes a vowel sound (regardless of whether or not the first letter is actually a vowel), you should use "an." The acronym "NWO" is a perfect example. While "N" is a consonant, it makes the short e sound (i.e., a vowel sound) when you say it. Consequently, "an" should be used.

Check to see if there is already an established initialism or acronym for your phrase

It's also important to remember that while you can sometimes make up initialisms or acronyms, there are many words/phrases that require abbreviating that are already established and universal. There are a number of online dictionaries you can use to search for commonly used initialisms and acronyms.

Initialisms and acronyms in academic writing

If you're using initialisms and/or acronyms in academic writing, remember that some scientific journals require you to introduce initialisms and acronyms once in the abstract of your article and then again upon the first use in the body of the article. Should you be unsure about how to use initialisms or acronyms when writing an academic article, please refer to your journal's specific requirements.

Too many initialisms and acronyms can turn your business writing into alphabet soup

Please remember that acronyms should only be used for words or phrases that are repeated a number of times throughout your document. If you use too many initialisms and acronyms, readers will become confused. Here's an example of extreme initialism/acronym usage in a press release:

In the US, the notion of an NWO became popular after the terrorist attacks on the WTC. However, officials in NATO and the WTO rarely refer to an NWO in proceedings relating to the GATT, and it can be said that the MVTO, the MFN clause, and SROs have little to do with an NWO.

As you can see, too many initialisms and acronyms can make your writing more difficult to understand. If numerous acronyms are necessary, we recommend including a glossary of initialisms/acronyms; your readers may then refer to it if they become confused.

TTYL—Save your casual initialisms and for text messages

Finally, while you may often be rotfl with your bff about the Chem hw that you need to get done asap, please remember that initialisms and acronyms used in instant messaging are rarely, if ever, appropriate for business or professional writing.

While using initialisms and acronyms correctly may help readers understand your work more easily, the incorrect use of initialisms and acronyms could turn your work into a mess. When in doubt, submit your work to our business editors for a fast, professional opinion.

Image source: jeshoots/

Related Articles

Full Stops: A How-To Guide

If you’re North American, you may be wondering what exactly full stops are—here’s a hint, there is one at the end of this sentence. This is the main function of full stops, or periods: marking the end of a sentence.

How to Avoid Redundancies

While literary geniuses are free to flout style conventions, we mere mortals must adhere to them. So how do you purge your paper of redundancies? Our editors explain how to avoid redundancies in your business writing.

The History and Usage of Common Symbols

The ampersand, at sign, and pound sign are common symbols that most of us use pretty regularly. Even so, their origins and rules of usage might surprise you!

 Back to Advice and Articles

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.

Like this:



Posted in Manuscript Prep



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *