Technology & Science

Should we put a leash on scientific acronyms?

The desire to attach catchy acronyms to research projects is causing confusion, but Stephen Strauss questions whether scientific acronyms should be regulated.

A Column Really Only Needs Your Motherliness Sometimes.

No, that doesn't at all do it.

A Column Rests On Nothing You Might Suspect.

Still much too obscure.

A Column, Right Or Not, Yields Many Surprises.

Hmm, that is more in the linguistic ballpark as I struggle to come up with an acronymic lead for this reflection on the problems that acronyms are creating in science.

My instigation was a recent lecture by University of Toronto atmospheric physics professor Kaley Walker in which she described how she sat around with two other scientists trying to devise a new acronym for a satellite mission they were proposing. The satellite would illuminate the earth's atmosphere, and the way the atmosphere absorbed light would provide a measure of airborne chemicals' distribution.

The term they came up with was SOAR — Solar Occultation for Atmospheric Research.  Not only was SOAR memorable, a cardinal virtue of acronyms, but "SOAR sounds pretty good for something flying through the sky," Walker later told me.

It also fit in with Walker's frankly acronym-jammed work life. She spends part of her year at PEARL, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory located in the Arctic; has been an a principal investigator on the remote-sensing PARIS, the Portable Atmospheric Research Interferometric Spectrometer; is a co-investigator for MANTRA 2004, the balloon mission officially known as the Middle Atmosphere Nitrogen TRend Assessment; and is the Deputy Mission Scientist for ACE, the Atmospheric Chemistry Experiment.

And it was with her ACE connection that some of larger problems with acronyms were revealed. At a conference a person she was talking to excitedly told her "we use your data all the time and it is great." And Walker responded "that's interesting but unfortunately our data has not yet been released to the public so I don't think you are using it."

What accounted for the confusion? The person was actually referring to data being gathered by NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite.

Ha-ah, you might now say. Those scientists and their fascination with acronyms — they are bound to confuse things once in a while. But to say that means you don't understand the growing problems acronyms are causing people in all fields of science. 

In recent years the research community's embrace of acronyms — what has variously been termed "acronymania" or "acronymophilia" or "acronymesis" or just plain old "acronym addiction" — has increasingly come under fire as being really too much of a good thing.  

Consider that the word acronym itself only appeared in 1943. Today the website Acronymfinder.com lists more than 4 million acronyms /abbreviations/"initialisms." 

The use and misuse of acronyms in medicine has caused the most passionate linguistic furor.

For example, in 2004 Tsung O. Cheng, of the George Washington Medical Center in Washington D.C., who has become a kind of professional acronym scold when it comes to their use in clinical trials, wrote in a letter to the Annals of Internal Medicine that "certain acronyms sound more attractive than others and thus tend to be sought after by more than one group of clinical investigators."

Specifically BEST was an acronym for nine different trials, IMPACT for 13 and HEART was used in 16 (now 22). The problem was that not only could patients easily confuse which HEART trial their doctors or anyone else was talking about, the acronym often appeared in the clinical literature without any indication of what it was "acronymizing."

More troubling was the 2006 New England Journal of Medicine study by three professors at the University of Toronto about the relationship between positive-sounding acronyms and favorable responses to them.

What they found when looking at three leading medical journals was that those clinical trials which had been turned into acronyms became almost the spoiled children of clinical medicine. They not only enrolled five times as many patients, they were twice as likely to be cited in subsequent research as non-acronymic trials. Not to mention the fact that acronymic studies were four times as likely to be funded by drug companies and eight times as likely to be authored by an industry employee.

While the U of T researchers' opined citations rate might be a function of the fact that acronyms were easier to remember, or that the best researchers were also geniuses of acronym formation, the simplest explanation was that an acronym was effectively a positive linguistic branding.

"We have lots of studies out there with code names like HOPE and RESOLVE and CONQUER, but no clinical trial as far as I know have run under the title of CRUMMY or LOUSY or CHEAP," says Donald Redelmeier, Canada Research Chair in Medical Decision Science at the U of T and one of the authors of the 2006 study.

He believes an acronym's positive cast subconsciously made other scientists more likely to cite these studies findings in subsequent studies. Unfortunately, the best brand name didn't necessarily correlate with the best science.

"If acronyms exert influence independently of … markers of clinical credibility … such influence is not rational scientifically, even if it is understandable psychologically," said the 2006 paper. 

A very different problem has arisen in the artificial intelligence/library search community. The promiscuous use of same name acronyms/initialisms — think of SAD standing for Seasonal Affective Disorder, Standard American Diet, Selected Area Diffraction, not to mention the 74 other acronymic SAD things — creates fundamental keyword-search issues. A recent study by a librarian in Illinois of how well websites such MEDLINE and PubMed led you to the specific acronym or initialism you were looking for was anything but heartening. Depending on where you searched, you might be successful only between seven and 32 per cent of the time.

Indeed, the problem is so deep in a computer sense that it has spawned a mini-industry of computer scientists looking for the best algorithm to "disambiguate" acronyms, abbreviations and initialisms from their fraternal word twins.

So what to do? 

Cheng suggests a couple of approaches. The first is the mild DAMN/DARN strategy. DAMN stand for Don't Abbreviate More than Necessary and DARN for Don't Abbreviate unless Really Necessary.

A second is more radical. He believes scientific and research-related acronyms should be registered.

For some interesting and funny astronomical acronyms, go to http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/~gpetitpas/Links/Astroacro.html.

"Once invented and registered, an acronym should be like a patent, which means nobody else can use it again," he tells me.

That's logical, and disambiguating, and may yet prove necessary in medicine where life and death may indeed be the result of acronym/initialism confusion.

But despite all their problems in a larger sense I find myself loath to regulate acronyms. As I stated in mylast column, the language of science is often explicitly excommunicatory, and as such it can cause ordinary people to flee screaming from scientific terms and explanation.

This is bad for science and worse for the non-scientific public. As a consequence I love the fact that with their sometimes hokey, sometimes repetitive acronyms, scientists are at least trying to invite us in, trying to brand their research as user-friendly.

If we implicitly discourage this by telling scientists that all the easy acronyms are taken, and as a consequence they will have to come up with less obvious and in some ways more confusing ones — see my clumsy attempts in the introduction to this piece — I fear the consequences. If acronyms become something you have to register, many researchers will likely abandon the acronym exercise entirely, and that will leave us with the opaque and excommunicatory language of our pre-acronym past.

So even if it turns out that SOAR is an acronym previously taken — in fact it also denotes the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research — I still don't want Kaley Walker to give her SOAR up. I still want to encourage her and others to acronymize their hearts out, because sometimes a little confusion is the price we pay for being less precisely scientific and more blurrily human.

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