How many times have you tried to understand a sentence from a scientific article only to give up thinking it was written in a foreign language? Yes, I know, for many English – the lingua franca of international science, technology, business, aviation… – is a foreign language. What I’m referring to is the over-use of acronyms, abbreviated words or phrases and jargon, which irritatingly decorate far too many scientific papers.
Whilst one acknowledges that discipline-specific technical terms are necessary, all too often this terminology seems deliberately designed to be understood only by ‘those in the know’ – i.e. the privileged few admitted to some secret society – and intended to keep out ‘impostors’ and prevent the barbarians from entering the citadel of truth and polluting its ranks. This approach can be self-defeating in that it alienates people – potential recruits – to the particular scientific discipline. And, if it is perpetuated and becomes widespread in other forms of science writing, then it runs counter to the promotion of the public understanding of science (PUS – who on earth dreamt up that acronym??) remit with which scientists are charged. Furthermore, such terms – far from helping – usually get in the way of clear thought and expression or – and worse! – comprehension on behalf of the readers. Language should be about communication, moving an idea from the brain of one individual into another’s. To work effectively it should do this in an efficient, clear and unambiguous way.
Well, it seems that enough is enough: the case against the over-use of acronyms and the like in scientific papers has been made in a Nature Methods Editorial (8: 521, 2011), albeit by ‘author unavailable’, entitled ‘NUAP (no unnecessary acronyms please)’. Apart from a major issue that few so-called acronyms are actually acronyms, the short piece concludes that ‘acronyms used sparingly and in the right circumstances can aid in communication. But overuse or improper use has the opposite effect. We hope researchers will find the right balance’. Hear, hear! And whilst I’m astride my hobby-horse, can we not restrict – ban? – use of the word ‘novel’ that appears so frequently in article titles ‘Novel gene for this’, ‘Novel gene for that’, etc. Well – and I realise that this must come as a shock to many – genes aren’t actually novel(!). They’ve probably been around for hundreds of millions of years since they were first intelligently designed, created and/or evolved, but in the 20th and 21st centuries they aren’t novel. OK, we humans may have recently discovered what a gene does, but over-hyping the work by tagging it with the adjective ‘novel’ is too much for the more humble amongst us (and, anyway, only serves to emphasise our own ignorance of matters biological). I feel so much better now! Sorry, but sometimes you just got to let it out.