Studie: wetenschappers gebruiken te veel acroniemen, hier is de top 10augustus 17, 2020
OMG WTH SMH BRB
IDK. That could be a reaction to a study just published in the scientific journal eLife The study showed how much the use of acronyms in scientific publications has exploded like TNT over the past 70 years. This increased use of acronyms may be making it more difficult for everyone else to understand WTH scientists are saying. And IMHO that’s not a good thing because it may make scientific findings that much harder to understand.
Dictionary.com defines an acronym as “a word formed from the initial letters or groups of letters of words in a set phrase or series of words and pronounced as a separate word.” So for example, when you call someone a GOAT, you usually mean “greatest of all time,” unless, of course, you are calling that person a fur-covered animal with horns who may occasionally eat trash. As this ESPN video showed, it may not be completely clear why tennis player Roger Federer has been called the GOAT:
Sometimes the use of acronyms can be helpful. For example, the acronym SNAFU has become a lot easier to say than what it originally stood for as a military acronym: Situation Normal: All (dirty word that begins with F)-ed Up. But when you use acronyms that are not universally understood, you could actually impede communication.
For the study, Adrian Barnett, PhD, and Zoe Doubleday, PhD, from the Queensland University of Technology and the University of South Australia in Australia scanned 24,873,372 titles and 18,249,091 abstracts published in scientific journals from 1950 to 2019. This returned 1,112,345 unique acronyms. They defined an acronym as “a word in which half or more of the characters are upper case letters.”
During this time period, among scientific publication titles, the proportion of acronyms went from 0.7 per 100 words in 1950 up to 2.4 per 100 words in 2019. In abstract text, the proportion of acronyms jumped from 0.4 per 100 words in 1956 to 4.1 per 100 words in 2019. While at first blush this may not seem like a lot, imagine if one out of every 25 words that came out of your mouth was an acronym. Overall, nearly a fifth (19%) of all titles and nearly three-quarters (73%) of all abstracts had at least one acronym.
In 2019, the top 10 most used acronyms in titles were in order:
The most used ones in abstracts were as follows:
How many of these are clear to you? OK, so it may be clear that DNA and RNA are referring to gene-related material. While not everyone may realize that they stand for “deoxyribonucleic acid” and “ribonucleic acid”, respectively, they’ve become part of widespread lexicon. So has HIV, which is short for “human immunodeficiency virus.” Similarly, if you’ve gotten a CT or an MRI, you may realize that these don’t mean Connecticut or more ridiculous itching but instead stand for “computed tomography” and “magnetic resonance imaging” in this case.
After that, things can get a bit dicey. Does US stand for you and me in ALL CAPS? Or does it mean the United States? Well, it could. But it could also refer to an “ultrasound” or the “urinary system.” It will be kind of important to know which is being indicated when someone orders a US for you. You don’t want this to be a golden opportunity for a misunderstanding.
CI may be a bit of a mystery to many. After all, it sounds like someone is trying to say CIA while eating a bagel. The “A” just didn’t quite come out of the mouth. Instead, it means “confidence interval.”
Then there’s HR. Your company may have HR but that doesn’t usually refer to heart rate or hazard ratio as it typically does in scientific publications. Don’t expect the head of human resources to be checking people’s pulses or calculating the statistical probability of an event occurring in a treatment group versus the probability of the same event occurring in a control group.
Oh, and PET is not a pet as in a DOG, a CAT, a CANARY or a GIANT ANACONDA. In a scientific journal, PET typically stands for “positron emission tomography”, which is a type of imaging.
It’s one thing to use an acronym that many other are using. But what if you use acronyms that few really understand? For example, PET could stand for “pickles, enchiladas, and tomatoes.” However, if you order a PET at a store, don’t be surprised if it has a lot of fur. The study did find that many of the over 1.1 million acronyms found had been used very infrequently. In fact, 30% of them appeared only once, and 49% appeared just between two and ten time times. If being mentioned two to ten times in six to seven decades constitutes common use, then the song “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba must still be super popular.
Acronym use getting OOC shouldn’t be a surprise to those in medicine, where every different specialty, sub-specialty, and super-sub-specialty can have their own separate set of acronyms. For example:
When you say someone is your “boo,” you probably don’t mean “bladder outlet obstruction.” That would not be a term of endearment. It would be a term of “get to the hospital as quickly as possible.”
It may seem like acronyms save time, but do they really:
Or are there other motivations:
Keep in mind that the same acronym can mean different things to different people:
Oh, and if you are ordering CBD, getting a common bile duct may not be what you had in mind.
The study also found that the average number of words in scientific journal article titles has steadily increased over time from 9.0 words in 1950 to 14.6 words in 2019. From 1962 to 2019, the average number of words in abstracts have nearly doubled from 128 to 220 words. You may think that more words are better in explaining things, but not necessarily. Saying “movement of the feet in a rapid manner may be necessary given the impending arrival of a significantly large feline creature that bears stripes across its corpus,” is probably not as effective as saying, “run, it’s a freaking tiger.”
Plus, in the publication, Barnett and Doubleday provided the following four examples of sentences pulled from abstracts with the publication dates in parentheses at the end of each sentence:
- “Applying PROBAST showed that ADO, B-AE-D, B-AE-D-C, extended ADO, updated ADO, updated BODE, and a model developed by Bertens et al were derived in studies assessed as being at low risk of bias.’ (2019)
- “Toward this goal, the CNNT, the CRN, and the CNSW will each propose programs to the NKF for improving the knowledge and skills of the professionals within these councils.’ (2000)
- ‘After their co-culture with HC-MVECs, SSc BM-MSCs underwent to a phenotypic modulation which re-programs these cells toward a pro-angiogenic behaviour.’ (2013)
- “RUN had significantly (p
Got it? Don’t you hate it when you co-culture undergoes phenotypic modulation? Just make sure that you don’t demonstrate a pro-angiogenic behaviour the next time you go to a party. That may be TMI.
Don’t get me wrong. Acronyms do have their place. Having to say “magnetic resonance imaging”each and every time can be a bit much. Keep in mind thought that acronyms can be like chocolate, hot dogs, and Spanx. When used appropriately and in moderation, they can be quite helpful. However, problem arise when they are employed indiscriminately. Barnett and Doubleday concluded that “acronyms are not the biggest current problem in science communication, but reducing their use is a simple change that would help readers and potentially increase the value of science.”
As the year 2020 has shown, many people aren’t using real science to make decisions when they should. Numerous political and business leaders are bypassing scientific evidence and principles in favor of political or financial agendas. Even in the midst of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, medical and public health experts do not seem to be leading the response. Moreover, the past few years has seen an explosion of conspiracy theories and bogus health products and services that aren’t grounded in scientific evidence. Additionally, many major health and public issues such as climate change and obesity are not receiving the attention that they deserve.
The medical, public health, and other scientific communities have a right to complain. Nonetheless, these scientific communities are in part to blame for this situation. A lot of science has become super-specialized and too silo-ed. Many scientific and medical experts have fallen into narrow communities that effectively constitute social clubs that may not talk with or comprehend each other. Each of these clubs can then form their own cliques, cultures, and languages that only they really understand.
The increasing use of acronyms may be further evidence that all of this is happening and impeding the public’s ability to understand WTH scientists are saying. For scientific findings to be relevant to everyone, they have to be comprehensible to everyone, not just people within a specific scientific discipline. It’s time for scientific journals and the various scientific communities to use more “common” language that doesn’t require you to Google or Bing every other word. After all, if a tree falls in the forest, and you tell everyone ATFITF, will that ever make a sound or an impact?