Do you know your DNA from your RNA? Is science bogged down with too many acronyms?

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  • A meta-analysis of research papers found that acronyms are making the content harder to understand.
  • Of more than a million unique acronyms, only 0.2% are regularly used.
  • About 30% of acronyms are only used once.

Acronyms form a big part of our daily lives and how we communicate. Some make us LOL, others help avoid TL, DR articles, and some even become words in their own right – to avoid any FOMO.

Many acronyms are so prevalent that people understand what they mean without the help of a glossary. The same applies to scientists who deal with many acronyms every day.

Too many acronyms

But is science going overboard with acronyms? Two Australian researchers seem to think so. They did a massive meta-research study on the prevalence of acronyms in scientific research, and found that many are only used once.

Publishing their findings in eLife they believe that cumbersome, unknown acronyms are hampering scientific communication efforts.

READ | Lab-grown mini-organs reveal the damage inflicted by Covid-19 

Knowledge-ignorance paradox

Just one sentence from an abstract they pulled clearly explains the confusion: "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." 

It might as well be an alien language.

Analysis of 24 million studies and 18 million article abstracts published between 1950 and 2019 revealed that out of more than one million unique acronyms, only 0.2% were used regularly, about 79% less than 10 times, and about 30% only once.

"As the number of scientific papers published every year continues to grow, individual papers are also becoming increasingly specialised and complex," according to the authors.

"This information overload is driving a 'knowledge-ignorance paradox' whereby information increases but knowledge that can be put to good use does not."

READ MORE | Sexist endometriosis study rating women according to looks retracted after 7 years 

Need clearer science

We have become especially aware of the importance of clearly written studies in the coronavirus pandemic, where studies misinterpreted by the layman could be dangerous.

In the 1950s, studies had on average 0.7 acronyms for every 100 words, whereas today that ratio stands at 2.4 acronyms per 100 words.

It's also driving fragmentation in the sciences, say the researchers, because even scientists don't understand research outside their fields. This includes the use of acronyms that have different meanings depending on the context – "UA" alone has 18 different meanings.

"Our work shows that new acronyms are too common, and common acronyms are too rare."

Top acronyms used

The most commonly used acronyms have also changed over the years, starting off with ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic hormone) in the 1950s, while DNA, RNA and HIV/Aids slowly took over in the 1980s.

READ | Gender-bias in science: Men rated as better students despite women outperforming them 

(Video: Barnett and Doubleday, 2020, eLife 2020;9:e60080 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.60080)

"However, not all the top 20 [acronyms] may be so widely recognised, and it is an interesting individual exercise to test whether you, the reader, recognise them all. Six of the top 20 acronyms also have multiple common meanings in the health and medical literature, such as US and HR‚ although the meaning can usually be inferred from the sentence."

It's also important to note that the average length of studies and abstracts have increased considerably over the years, which might contribute to the increase in acronyms.

Renewed call to write better

While there have been many calls throughout the years on scientists to reduce their use of acronyms, these results indicate that those guidelines are basically being ignored.

"Entrenched writing styles in science are difficult to shift... and the creation of new acronyms has become an acceptable part of scientific practice, and for clinical trials is a recognised form of branding.

"It is difficult to make a general rule about which acronyms to keep and which to spell out. However, there is scope for journals to reduce the use of acronyms by, for example, only permitting the use of certain established acronyms."

READ MORE | Covid-19 science: Who's behind the research? A shockingly low number of women, a study finds

Image credit: Pixabay

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