The Evolution of Confusion in Scientific Writing: Overuse of Abbreviations

By Jeffrey Peters posted 11-14-2019 14:18


Communique 2019 Issue 4 Masthead which on the left has the Communique logo consisting of a blue speaking bubble aligned with an orange icon showing a newspaper. The word

Have you ever started reading a paper and scratched your head on page 5 because your brain was swimming in a sea of the author’s abbreviations and you had lost track of the author’s writing? I have. Many times. This has become far too common an occurrence, and it is time to address this issue substantively because enough is enough—it’s obstructive (EIEIO).

Wooden cutouts of the letters SIFE are centered in the middle of the picture. Behind the letters on the left is a stethoscope; behind the letters on the right are medical gloves. You also can see a few empty blood vials behind SIFE.There are likely different reasons for the explosion of abbreviations now being used in scientific writing. One potential driving factor was the change implemented by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by notice number NOT-OD-09-149 in September 2009. In an effort to enhance peer review, the NIH markedly reduced the number of pages allowed for specific grant applications (e.g., the page limit for an R01 application was shortened from 25 pages to just 12 pages). While the new rule was designed to expedite peer review by forcing grant applicants to present their research proposals succinctly, it placed research in a conundrum of presenting and justifying complicated proposals in a much smaller amount of space. In other words, how does one explain the complexities of science by writing concisely?

Shortly thereafter, I noticed that many grants and scientific papers contained abbreviations for many terms that were very unfamiliar. For example, “epithelial cell proliferation” became “ECP,” “arterial luminal transport” became “ALT,” “hepatic biliary obstruction” became “HBO,” and so on. The last two examples are particularly troublesome because most toxicologists recognize that “ALT” is a standard abbreviation for “alanine aminotransferase” and “HBO” is an abbreviation for a television network. These are a mere snapshot of the plethora of abbreviations that appear in scientific reading. Another source of influence for increased use of abbreviations is that many scientific journals impose strict limits on word counts. Moreover, I am fairly certain that the use of “cute” abbreviations for texting also has contributed to the explosion of abbreviations in scientific writing; LOL.

A quote from the article questioning how one writes about science concisely.The use of abbreviations is reasonable when the abbreviations are well accepted and do not conflict with standards accepted by most scientists. However, it appears in many instances that abbreviations are created to help the author circumvent word count limits on manuscripts or grants. That is why EIEIO. The problem is that while this approach may help authors, it does not do the same thing for the reader or reviewer. Quite the contrary. How can scientists read about new findings without getting completely confused by the time they reach page 2 and have to go back and figure out what the abbreviation stands for? This is actually a daunting task and one that will require adaptation to address. It is critical that the use of confusing abbreviations be curtailed, or the scientific community is going to suffer from confusing publications. It is in our collective best interest to alter our writing habits and stop using abbreviations that do not benefit the reader. Abbreviations should be limited to those that aid the reader or reviewers and are not merely for the benefit of the author(s).

So, EIEIO! And I’m not referring to Old MacDonald’s farm. I hope the day is soon that one will be able to say, “I can’t believe I just read an entire article and won’t have to find the page that defines ‘ICBIJRAEAAWHTFTPTF.’” In brief, W?TF? (What? The Facts?).