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Academic formatting norms

Using bold and italics

Using bold in the body of your scientific text is not usually done. The use of italics is normally confined to book and journal titles in reference lists, in accordance with APA referencing guidelines. Italics may also be used for emphasis purposes, but it is best to check formatting guidelines such as those of the journal you chose to submit your paper.

Using abbreviations and acronyms

Acronyms (e.g. ‘NATO’, ‘UK’, ‘HIV’, ‘laser’, ‘radar’) are usually acceptable in academic writing. Many acronyms are so common that they have become part of daily usage. Any reader would therefore be expected to be familiar with them, so they don’t require spelling out. It may also be that a given acronym is very common within your discipline. If you are writing a Medicine paper, chances are that your readers will know what ECG means.

For more obscure acronyms, it is advised to use the full form the first time you mention it in your text, followed by the acronym in parentheses. After the first full mention (e.g. ‘a business impact analysis (BIA)’), it is fine to use the acronym in the remainder of your text. It will help you stick to the word limit of your essay or manuscript, too.

However, you should steer clear of abbreviations in your text, as they may be seen as too colloquial or informal. Do not use ‘stats’ instead of ‘statistics’, ‘info’ instead of ‘information’, ‘approx’ for ‘approximately’, etc.

There are two exceptions to this norm:

  1. Statistical terms and units of measurement if followed by a number. Examples are ‘kg’, ‘min’, ‘SD’ (standard deviation) or ‘M’ (mean). If not followed by a number, those should be written in full according to APA guidelines.
  2. Latin abbreviations such as ‘e.g.’ (for example), ‘i.e.’ (that is), ‘etc.’ (and so on), ‘et al.’ (and other people) are commonly used abbreviations in academic writing. Make sure not to confuse ‘e.g.’ with ‘i.e.’, and to limit their use to within parentheses at the end of sentences. Note that when used within brackets, they don't need to be followed by commas.

E.g. They passed several laws (e.g. labor reform) last term.

Using contractions

You must not use contractions in your academic text, as they are a feature of informal language.

Examples of undesirable contractions are:

  • ‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’
  • ‘it’s’/‘isn’t’/’aren’t’ instead of ‘it is’/‘is not’/’are not’
  • ‘can’t’/’couldn’t’/’wouldn’t’/’mustn’t’ instead of ‘cannot’/’could not’/’would not’/’must not’

Using brackets or parentheses

Brackets (or parentheses) are used extensively in academic texts, for example to incorporate in-text citations (e.g. ‘No correlation has thus far been found (Smith, 2018)’), or to introduce acronyms (e.g. ‘the American Medical Association (AMA)’) and statistical information (e.g. ‘No significant difference was found (p > 0.05).’). Brackets may also be used to add supplementary information to a word or phrase.

Be careful not to overuse them, however. While they can be useful, they can break the flow of a sentence or argument if they constitute a big part of your text, or make it seem as if most of what you say is an aside of little importance.

If you are tempted to put a chunk of text in brackets, consider creating a new sentence with that chunk, or using punctuation like commas or colons/semi-colons.

In the example sentence below, placing the chunk ‘nearly invariant’ between commas is better than placing it within parentheses:

  • The incision was found to allow for a stable (nearly invariant) point of rotation for the instrument shaft.
  • The incision was found to allow for a stable, nearly invariant, point of rotation for the instrument shaft.

It is possible to use parentheses within parentheses (i.e. nested parentheses) in your academic text. In this case, simply use a different set of brackets such as square brackets. For example:

  • (The MBTI [Myers-Briggs Type Indicator] has also been used, but was not used in this study.)

When citing within brackets, use commas instead of more brackets. For instance:

  • This can be demonstrated by the representativeness heuristic (see Tversky & Kahneman, 1973, for the initial conceptualisation) and other such theories (prospect theory; Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).

Check whether your text follows the norms of academic writing

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