Friday, April 19, 2013

CRASS: Create Relevant Abbreviations for Science Studies

Alex Bond at The Lab and Field, on the misuse of abbreviations in research:
Abbreviations obfuscate meaning, and create a separation between those who know what it means, and those who don’t.  It’s fine to use them colloquially, but for professional correspondence like a work email signature, or affiliation on a manuscript, it looks like crap, and won’t matter to anyone outside the abbreviated institution or country.  
I totally agree.  Abbreviations are thrown around from time to time, but really, if you're going to put out something permanent that people will refer back to, be it an email, a published paper, a conference presentation, you should spell everything out.  At very least once in the document.

How many times have you read a paper and found an undefined acronym?   Commonly used methods, like RACE or PCR1, are especially vulnerable to the assumption that the reader knows what they are.  RACE, for instance, is an acronym with several meanings: "Rapid Amplification of cDNA Ends"; "Row-based ASCII Compatible Encoding"; "Return on Average Common Equity", and many more.

But acronyms (backronyms?) get even funnier when their force fit to projects:
And, for goodness sake, please avoid trying to make an existing lab/project/grant title into an acronym by selectively choosing letters to spell out a single word.  Nothing cries out “lame” so much as the Laboratory for Massive Experiments (LaME). You get the idea. 
I won't promise that I'll never make up an acronym that, but if I do, I'll try to keep it relevant.  When naming a scientific study with an acronym, remember to Create Relevant Abbreviations for Science Studies.

In the end, don't assume your reader knows what you're talking about.  You never know who will be reading what you put out there, so help them understand what you've written.

1PCR, for anyone that didn't know, stands for Polymerase Chain Reaction.