When writing academic and scientific literature, are there any good guidelines to when you can omit defining an industry standard abbreviation? Are there any guidelines to where you can draw the line? When looking the this up I found a few sources like this blogpost that suggested using dictionaries - if it is in the dictionary as a word, you don't need to explain it.

However, in my field (electrical engineering) there are many industry standard abbreviations that are not in any dictionaries. Examples would be terms like opamp (operational amplifier), ADC (analog-to-digital converter), CPU (central processing unit), MOSFET (Metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor). Applying their rule would mean I have to define every term, but this would seem somewhat excessive to me.

How do I deal with industry standard terms that are still abbreviations? The safe bet would be to always define them in their first use, but are there any general rules to use when dealing with these?

  • Your examples, MOSFET, CPU and ADC, can be all found in dictionaries.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    May 15 '17 at 9:48
  • Interesting. I must have a bad dictionary. I checked with the oxford dictionary, and indeed, these are all in there.
    – Joren Vaes
    May 15 '17 at 9:52
  • Make your best guess (after reading relevant instructions), and let the page editors worry about what you got right or wrong. That's one of their jobs. May 15 '17 at 11:15
  • 1
    Ask yourself the question: If, in 50 years, someone that knows a bit on electrical engineering reads your article, would he understand it?
    – Tony
    May 15 '17 at 12:32

Let us assume that your publisher / journal / conference / style manual has no restrictive guideline regarding abbreviations (otherwise, follow that guideline obviously in first place).

You do have to define every abbreviation. (As an example, I was confused yesterday by finding out that CRT is not only a cathode ray tube, but also the Chinese Remainder Theorem). Consider, e.g., the huge list at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ADC . But you can do it in a clever, space-conserving way by

  • providing a list in an appendix,
  • defining them in footnotes on their first usage,
  • defining all of them in small size in a "preliminaries section" or in endnotes,
  • giving a reference to a standard Web site with the abbreviations you need,
  • giving a reference to your own Web page with the abbreviations you need,
  • citing some electrical-engineering dictionary which defines them unambiguously the way you need,

Of course, pay attention that your paper reads well in first place; there may be no general advice on which of the above list items applies best to your paper.

  • 2
    "You do have to define every abbreviation." Not true in general. For example, defining "HTTP" in a web-engineering conference would be weird. May 15 '17 at 10:03
  • I have nether heard of a cathode ray tube, but am very familiar with the Chinese Remainder Theorem, thus I like your example. :) Apart from that I agree with your proposal of a list in the appendix: In such a list, it doesn't matter if even HTTP is mentioned, it is thoroughly done, that's all. However, I would not include it on the first use, as this will hinder the reading. Put it in the end, mention it in the introduction and whoever doesn't know a term can look it up.
    – Dirk
    May 15 '17 at 10:52
  • @LeonMeier I downvoted because I don't think you have to define every abbreviation. That was maybe a bit too harsh, though, because the answer does give useful information even if I don't agree with that aspect of it. Downvote removed.
    – user24098
    May 15 '17 at 12:59

Check the guidelines of the source you are publishing in.

Many journals have some requirements about abbreviations, to which you can refer. They might even specify how to express common concepts in the field, and whether they need to be defined.

Beyond that, you don't have to define everything, but err on the side of caution.

If something would be obvious to nearly all readers, you don't necessarily have to define it. But keep in mind that things that are obvious to you may not be obvious to others. It's a common error to accidentally assume that terms that are familiar to you (since you use them all the time) will be familiar to your audience.

CPU is a widely-used term beyond electrical engineering, so I would not worry about omitting that. But I think that abbreviations which are common in your discipline, but not necessarily known beyond that, are better defined than not. I would define things like MOSFET and ADC.

It's possible that an article you publish will be of interest to people outside the field: in related fields, for example. Or perhaps electrical engineers who have been working in industry for many years on a narrow project, and don't remember everything about parts of the discipline they haven't been actively working on.

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