DNA – the short form of deoxyribonucleic acid – was the most widely used acronym in scientific literature in the past 70 years, according to a new Australian study.
But what bothers its authors is the plethora of less obvious and unnecessary acronyms they fear are making science less useful and more complex for society and scientists alike.
WTF is their view on the other use for WTF: water-soluble thiourea-formaldehyde.
Adrian Barnett from Queensland University of Technology and Zoe Doubleday from the University of South Australia say the use of acronyms in titles has more than trebled since 1950 and increased 10-fold in scientific abstracts in the same period.
They analysed 24 million scientific article titles and 18 million abstracts looking for trends in not using words and found 1.1 million unique acronyms, many of which, they suggest, cause confusion, ambiguity and even misunderstanding.
“For example, the acronym UA has 18 different meanings in medicine, and six of the 20 most widely used acronyms have multiple common meanings in health and medical literature,” says Doubleday.
“When I look at the top 20 scientific acronyms of all time, it shocks me that I recognise only about half. We have a real problem here.”
DNA is universally recognised, but the second most popular acronym – CI, for confidence interval – could easily be confused for chief investigator, cubic inch or common interface, the researchers say. Likewise, US (United States/ultrasound/urinary system) and HR (heart rate/hazard ratio).
“Strikingly, out of the 1.1 million acronyms analysed, we found that 2%, about 2000, were used more than 10,000 times,” says Barnett. “Even when the 100 most popular acronyms were removed, there was still a clear increase in acronym use over time.”
Perhaps more worryingly, most acronyms are used fewer than 10 times, which rather negates the point of creating them. Not everything is such a hot topic of conversation as DNA.
“We believe that scientists should use fewer acronyms when writing scientific papers. In particular, they should avoid using acronyms that might save a small amount of ink but do not save any syllables, such as writing HR instead of heart rate,” Barnett and Doubleday suggest in a paper in the journal eLife.
“This approach might also make articles easier to read and understand, and even help avoid potential confusion (as HR can also mean hazard ratio or hour).
“For more complex phrases with multiple syllables and specialist words, such as methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl (MMT), acronyms may ease reading and aid understanding, although MMT might mean methadone maintenance treatment to some readers.”
Entrenched writing styles in science are difficult to shift, the authors concede, and they even suggest that in future it might be possible – software permitting – for journals “to offer two versions of the same paper, one with acronyms and one without, so that the reader can select the version they prefer”.
The bottom line? New acronyms are too common, and common acronyms are too rare. “We suggest a second use for DNA: do not abbreviate.”
Nick Carne is the editor of Cosmos Online and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.