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?