Misuse Of Acronyms is Not Stellar (MOANS)

August 23, 2020

I feel like I’m generally able to roll with the obscurities and absurdities that plague academia. Average of 21 years from PhD to full-professor status in Toxicology? Fine, I won’t think about it. Lack of eye-care in my student health-insurance package? No problem; my outdated prescription doesn’t mean I’m blind (yet)! Non-employee student status that prevents me from saving for retirement (or unionizing)? Probably unfair, but it’s not productive to dwell.

However, one thing I cannot brush off is the confusion that surrounds acronyms in academia. We use acronyms, abbreviations, and initialisms to communicate faster; unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean that their use helps us communicate better. My main qualm is that I think that having so many acronyms in science makes it confusing to convey meaning across disciplines because acronyms can be mis-used to impede communication.

My favorite example of this is “MHC.” If you’re talking among biologists or schmoozing the histology core staff, MHC is understood as, “myosin heavy chain.” However, if you’re an immunologist or medical professional – your first thought might be “major histocompatibility complex.” And if you’re checking your student health insurance coverage, you may want to make sure your “mental health counselor” is still free due to COVID.

I’m pretty stuck on student health insurance issues lately… can you tell?

A recent eLife meta-analysis of the growth of acronyms in science found that acronym use is going up and acronym re-use is going down. It also suggested that journals which have policies that prohibit acronym use in the title do not enforce that rule.

The authors of the meta-analysis analyzed 24,873,372 titles and 18,249,091 abstracts published between 1950 and 2019, from which they observed over 1.1 million unique acronyms.

Introducing new acronyms so often while not using existing ones creates an alphabet-soup of terms in literature repositories (e.g. PubMed) that scientists and interested readers have to sift through. Furthermore, it is unlikely that one can completely evade this by limiting a search to titles. I want to clarify that I’m not against the use of acronyms; I oppose their misuse/abuse. The aforementioned level of acronym mis-use bugs the crap out of me.

Devil’s advocate: Given a fluent reader of the same language and discipline, acronyms certainly help scientists and writers rapidly convert print to meaning by reducing wordiness. The abstract in my most recent publication had a total of 25 acronyms or abbreviations; I would be WAY over the allotted word-count without their assistance.

Acronyms also help us wrangle long, unruly, and sometimes overly-quirky gene names. As someone who studies Drosophila, I’m familiar with (and partial to) an ensemble of whimsical gene names. They are more often referred to by their more digestible abbreviations: Multiple edematous wings (mew), kon-tiki (kon), son of sevenless (sos), held out wings (how), to name a few. Interestingly, some researchers have recently changed the names of genes in order to avoid issues when reading data sets in Microsoft Excel. The most obvious conclusion is that they should have been using Drosophila for their research…

I’m also partial to charismatic acronyms that I come across outside of the Drosophila community, which I want to share:

  • McSELFIE: McGill Self-Efficacy of Learners for Inquiry Engagement
  • GANDALF: Genetic variation and Altered Leucocyte Function
  • BEAVER: Biodeasel Exhaust, Acute Vascular and Endothelial Responses
  • PENIS: Proton Enhanced Nuclear Induction Spectroscopy

*courtesy of Academia Obscura.*

Although acronym misuse bugs me, I acknowledge it’s a moot point; researchers usually need to convey their point in print in as few characters as possible.

Nevertheless, scientists around the world need to be able to effectively communicate across disciplines to solve some of the greatest problems we face such as climate change, pollution, food insecurity, and infectious disease (#covid19). If we’re really in favor of increased efficiency, we should focus on improving interdisciplinary collaborations by communicating better, not faster.

Here are some propositions for how to communicate better:

1) Maintain consistent acronym use in a given field. Example: if an acronym exists in your field, resist the urge to create a new one. I suspect this is often done for the sake of personal branding.

2) Define the acronym once in each part of a manuscript: abstract, intro, result, discussion AND figure legends. It will require dedicated space in that precious word count, sure.

3) During oral presentations, speak the full phrase at least twice before using the acronym.

4) During oral presentations, refrain from using acronyms that have the same number of syllables as the phrase (e.g. “SC” for “stem cell” both have two, and it bothers me when I hear this acronym. However, “HUCAPS” for “Harvard Ultra-fine Concentrated Ambient Particle System” makes much sense).

5) Hire someone to communicate science. In academia, we wear SO many hats (teacher, researcher, mentor, writer, speaker, graphic designer, etc). Be comfortable seeking professional help with the one that makes your science accessible to the rest of humanity.

“You can’t take over the world without a good acronym.”

-C.S. Woolley, UK author

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Toxicologist & marathon runner

5 thoughts on “Misuse Of Acronyms is Not Stellar (MOANS)”

  1. What a great read and great points! I do think the overuse of acronyms stems from word counts and laziness in circumventing them. I liked your suggestion especially about avoiding speaking acronyms with the same number of syllables as the actual phrase. People probably get so used to reading and writing the acronym that they just don’t think about it when they speak. If it has a ‘W’ in it, it could even be more syllables than the full phrase!

    I actually had a phrase that I could have acronymized (?) but chose not to. It was “apoptosis resistance,” which clearly is a little unwieldy. But I felt that saying the actual phrase repeatedly helped with reminding the audience what I was talking about, which “AR” definitely wouldn’t have.

    Keep up the great work! Love the title btw!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kelly,

      Thank you for reading 💙 I was hesitant to call it laziness in my post, but I agree you might be correct in some contexts!

      Ah yes, words with “W” are strange to acronymize (we can make it a word for this comment thread lol). Tryptophan is abbreviated using, “W.” Makes sense to shorten the word for things like sequence analysis, but thankfully I haven’t heard anyone refer to the amino acid like this out loud; both have three syllables, so it’d be very silly.

      Good call on using the full phrase rather than “A.R.” wow I can’t believe you defended a year ago! Time flies!!


  2. This is a huge issue in legal writing, too! In law, the proliferation of acronyms in some fields saves a small number of words and makes reading marginally faster for people who are familiar with the acronyms, but drastically raises the barrier to entry for people who are unfamiliar with the field. (I keep a list of about 100 common government contracts acronyms pinned to my cubicle at work, because I just don’t know them well enough yet.)

    The difference between law and science, though, is that our word counts are much more forgiving, and lawyers are rarely using so many poly-word phrases that they need acronyms to avoid running out of space.

    Another difference is that lawyers over-define their acronyms, rather than under-defining them. In a brief about the Department of Energy, I don’t need “Department of Energy (‘DOE’)” to understand what the acronym means if I see it on the next page, but that won’t stop lawyers from defining it…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can imagine legal writing is full of these! Does it act as a barrier for those wanting to switch sub-fields in law?

      My opinion: in official texts and reports for law, science, and beyond, brevity should be king. We should use the smallest word possible in as least words as possible convey meaning to “the public” — which INCLUDES themselves and other scientists too! Unfortunately, as my friend Kelly pointed out in another comment, it may be easier to make of an acronym to shorten text than to restructure a sentence. 🙃

      Also- the list of acronyms seems very useful and I may borrow that tip for myself someday!


      1. I think it can serve as a barrier to people wanting to switch sub-fields, though a lot of that really depends on the field. Some of them are a lot more acronym-riddled than others!

        I agree that the goal should be to make official writing as simple as possible. I was part of the article selection committee for an academic journal during law school, and I was always suspicious of articles if I couldn’t at least understand the broad arguments. I might not understand the intricacies of the argument, but if I came away from reading a piece not even knowing the thesis, I had a strong feeling it was on the author, not on me. Sadly, I think you and Kelly are right that it’s often a lot easier just to use an acronym or other in-group language rather than spend the time to make a piece of writing truly acceptable.

        At any rate, I really enjoyed the post! It definitely gave me a lot to think about.


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