Alphabet Soup: Abbreviations and acronyms in scientific communication

Acronyms and abbreviations abound in scientific communications. With the lengthy and at times complicated names scientists give to molecules and methods, it is no surprise that we need to shorten these into something that doesn’t take up half a line of a poster, slide, or manuscript. Some acronyms are so often used that they are accepted as part of our everyday scientific language, for instance DNA, RNA, and NMR. Indeed some abbreviations are adopted into everyday general language, things like radar, laser, and MRI; the explicit roots of those words are lost and forgotten by the majority, the shorter version having morphed into a word that now stands on its own.

As scientists, the use of particular terms and acronyms expedite communication in our day-to-day work. Imagine if you were a toxicologist and every time you spoke with a colleague about an experiment, you explicitly stated cytochrome P450 3A4. It is faster–and less tongue-tying–to call it CYP3A4. Likewise jotting down MAPK in your notebook instead of mitogen-activated protein kinase is going to save some hand cramping. Most chemists don’t pause to process terms like LC, MS, CID, TLC, NOESY, or Rb flask. For immunologists, it’s all about FACS, CD11, Th9, IL-4, CD68 and M2 macrophages. Those working in computational biology rattle off things like MM, MD, ODE, and MCCM without second thought. Similarly a cell biologist is in the loop when people start throwing around MAPK, JAK, ERK, PP2, IKK, PAMPs, and DAMPs.*

Acronyms have their utility and place, but sometimes we are overzealous in their use. We are simply so accustomed to using shorthand everyday that, when we sit down to write about our work, the jargon just flows from our fingertips. It doesn’t occur to us that our second language may not be widely used. Sometimes these abbreviations actually interrupt the flow of a paragraph. These issues are particularly relevant when writing or speaking to an audience that may be hearing your jargon for the first time.

Scientists should reevaluate the use of abbreviations outside our microenvironments. We should carefully consider whether an acronym helps our presentation–or just turns it into alphabet soup. Here are a few guidelines I am trying to adopt:

  • Is the abbreviation unique? Some abbreviations mean different very different things in different disciplines. Sometimes they mean different things in the same field. Your audience is smart enough to recognize the discrepancy between their definition and the context. Still, seeing an acronym that is familiar but seemingly out-of-context can distract their attention. My view: If reasonable, avoid its use; if not, make sure it is clearly defined with the first use.
  • Is the abbreviation widely recognized? In some cases, full-length terms are not particularly descriptive, and over the years, abbreviations have been adopted in place of names. I often see this in cell signaling with things like ERK and Jnk. Other terms are more descriptive but may still be as readily recognized by their acronym as by their name.  If the short form is as readily recognized as the long form, I use the conventional notation.
  • Does the abbreviation enhance the flow in subsequent usage? For long or complex terms, introducing and using abbreviations makes reading and speaking easier. I daresay most people would prefer reading MAPEG over membrane-associated proteins in eicosanoid and glutathione metabolism. On the other hand, shortening a relatively simple 12-letter word to a 3-letter abbreviation often does little to help the flow and can even hinder it with the introduction of a parenthetical.
  • How much space does the abbreviation actually save? This links in with the previous point and is particularly relevant for abstracts. You’re writing an abstract or short grant that’s going to be read by people outside your field. You include an abbreviation–because you always use that abbreviation–that appears 6 times. The space it saves is half a line. This is a case where I revisit the guidelines above to decide whether the abbreviation is necessary. If it’s just a space saver, then I can probably find other cuts to make while improving the overall flow of the paragraph.
  • Who is your audience? You can get away with more shorthand if you’re among peers in your field. However, you should still consider whether the jargon you’re using is widely recognized or more specific to your lab. If you’re writing or speaking to a broader audience, you should certainly define your acronyms on first use, more than once for an oral presentation. More importantly, minimize the use of acronyms where you can.

These ideas may simply be founded in personal likes and dislikes, but I think they can improve the clarity, cadence, and continuity in scientific communication. What are your views on acronym usage?

Thanks to Zoonotica, Josh Drew, Simon Lancaster, Wardatron, Steven Saltman, Geeka, and tevetorbes for discussion earlier in the week, which partially inspired this post.

*If you’re bored, see how many of these abbreviations you can decipher–without the help of Google. 🙂
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8 Responses to Alphabet Soup: Abbreviations and acronyms in scientific communication

  1. Zen Faulkes says:

    And then there’s the whole pronunciation issue… As I mentioned over the weekend, some people say “PLoS” to rhyme with “boss,” some say it like “dose,” and I learned some say it like “mouse.”

    • biochembelle says:

      Heck, we can’t even agree on how to pronounce long-form scientific terms: is mesechymal ME-zen-kymal, mess-en-kymal, meh-zenc-imal or something else entirely?

      Slightly unrelated, I recently heard someone say “ala-9”. Took me a moment to figure out he was talking about alanine.

  2. Heather says:

    Great idea for a post! Even as a someone familiar with a lot of the scientific nomenclature (PhD student), I find it frustrating when friends, colleagues or seminar speakers, whose research foci is outside my expertise, assume I know their unique lingo. I can only imagine what non-scientists think when they (try to) read scientific articles or talk to scientists! I think clarity and knowing your audience are the biggest factors in enhancing scientific communication between scientists and non-scientists alike. Some might argue that it takes too long to explain acronyms, but it really should only take about 5-10 seconds to briefly explain what the acronym means; if the acronym is not explanatory (i.e. JNK) then briefly explain its function. If you can’t explain an acronym in less than 10 seconds, perhaps you should either review the material so that you can more concisely explain it or avoid using it. Not only can the assumption that your audience is well-versed in your particular research field lead to a frustrated audience it can cause the audience to become discouraged and distracted. The most effective seminars and discussions are successful because they explain something new that enhances the interest level of the audience. At the end of the day-do you want people to be interested in what you study? If the answer is yes, my advice is to take the time to make your research understandable to whoever has the slightest interest and use acronyms with caution.

  3. Eugenie says:

    I want to forward this post to my entire department. Seminars are BRUTAL- we get served many flavors of alphabet soup each week, resulting in 5% of the atendees remotely understanding what’s going on.

    With that said, I totally snorted (loudly) about the CYPs- being a student in a (diverse) toxicology department… we have a lot of running jokes about them… and how much of a pain in the ass they are. (Sad you didn’t pick CYP2E1…)

    • biochembelle says:

      I think the worst by far (and no offense to Heather up there) are immunologists. They’ve got their CD1 to CD206, some of which have subsets (e.g. CD11a, b, and C), many of which have at least two alternative names (generally more descriptive)… and then some start referring to them by the antibody clones that bind to them instead.

      As an aside, don’t you kind of wish CYPs went higher? I mean, who wouldn’t want to use CYP 3PO in a talk? :p

      • Eugenie says:

        NOT THE CDs!!!! I’ve managed to block them out of my memory, dang it!

        CYP3PO would be awesome! I secretly want to discover some kind of microbe/protien/whatever, and have the acronym be MOFO. How awesome would that be?

  4. It doesn’t help that some names may have started out as acronyms, but they’ve drifted over the years to become more complex. My favourite is the SMAD signalling proteins. SMAD is an abbreviation of SMA/MAD homology. Which isn’t very helpful. SMA is one of a class of C. elegans genes that give a “small” phenotype, and some of them are homologous to MAD, which is a Drosophila gene called mothers against decapentaplegic. None of which tells you anything at all about what the human SMAD genes might be doing. So sometimes explaining an abbreviation is probably not worth the effort: knowing that MAP kinases are activated by mitogens doesn’t really explain their function.
    Oh, and I hear about the “Pee-loss” journals quite a bit. Takes all sorts, I suppose.

  5. Karen says:

    I’ve been pronouncing it “ploss,” like “boss,” but looking at it, it probably should be pronounced “plose,” like “dose.” Oh well! The computer graphics field has GIF, which I always thought was (and should be) a hard g, but apparently the creators of the format pronounce it like the peanut butter.

    Most of the journals I’ve worked for have a list of acronyms that can stand alone, those that can be used but need spelling out on first use, and those that should be avoided.

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