WTF, when will scientists learn to use fewer acronyms?

This was our media release headline for our recent paper in eLife on acronyms and their overuse in science. We were both surprised and excited by the mini media storm that followed on radio, socials and popular and scientific news outlets (e.g. see write ups by Sydney Morning Herald, Popular Science, and Forbes). Scientific writing (a seemingly niche area on the surface) had hit the spotlight.

Now back to the paper. We analysed 24 million scientific article titles and 18 million abstracts between 1950 and 2019 and found over 1 million unique acronyms. Strikingly, we found that only 0.2% (about 2000) of these acronyms were used regularly. Perhaps more alarmingly, the proportion of acronyms in scientific writing* has increased 10 fold over the last 70 years (*that is the proportion of acronyms per 100 words in published abstracts). Are we headed towards alphabet soup?

It is more important than ever before to make what we write clear and accessible to both the scientific world and the broader community. Reducing our reliance on acronyms is one simple way we can boost the readership and readability of what we write so the knowledge we create is put to the best possible use.

All in all, the moral of the story, as my co-author Adrian puts it, is DNA: do not abbreviate.

Video: The top ten acronyms in abstracts for every year from 1950 to 2019 (Barnett and Doubleday 2020).