Jargon I can take – its abbreviations I can’t stand

NN blogger Jennifer Rohn has been writing recently about the use of jargon between scientists. As she points out, one of the points is to convey information succinctly from one person familiar with the vocabulary to one or more others who are equally familiar.

As I commented over at her post, I can live with the jargon. though it is important to be able to “translate” where necessary – as anyone who teaches undergraduate students, and/or who does any kind of public science communication, will be aware. Jenny made the latter point again in a recent follow-up comment.

This kind of “ability to talk parallel languages” thing is not taught very directly in science courses, which is sometimes a shame. Needing to be able to explain something in simple language can often be an aid to understanding. I am reminded of the undergraduate of a few years back who told me in a talk he was giving that researchers had worked out the transmembrane domain structure of the Cystic Fibrosis (CFTR) protein “by hydropathy analysis. The way the student presented this made it clear he thought it was an experimental technique providing empirical evidence, rather that a predictive system (educated guessing) about the arrangement of the protein into domains and their topology through the membrane – predictions that would then need to be validated by biochemical and other experiments. If the student had known he would need to be able to explain the method, rather than just saying “hydropathy analysis”, then he probably would have understood the difference. Another way to see this, of course, is as a particular example of that old line:

“You never really understand something properly until you have to explain/teach it to someone else.” – a view I have a fair bit of sympathy with.

Medical courses are probably clearer than science ones about the need to be able to talk the parallel languages of “lay” and “jargon”. There is a famous line about medical students leaving University with twice the vocabulary that they started with, since they have acquired several thousands words’ worth of techno-medical-ese. But of course they also require the ability to explain things to people (i.e. patients) in plain language, so this is something one stresses over and over in the medical course, and indeed tries to test.

Anyway, I can live with jargon in science – just about – for the reasons Jenny and others have given. I feel less tolerant, however, of the mounting plague of abbreviations. In particular, the biochemists’ and molecular cell biologists’ relentless enthusiasm for abbreviations gets to me. I reckon that abbreviations are less universally recognised between scientists in related but different fields than are jargon technical terms, and I get particularly annoyed when people use tons of abbreviations in seminars without clarifying what they mean. I remember going to one seminar about vesicular trafficking in which the speaker used a dozen undefined abbreviation (I was counting) within the first ten minutes, comprehensively losing absolutely anyone in the audience who was not a trafficking fiend. You can probably imagine that the following forty minutes felt more like several hours.

I suspect I am not the only one who feels this way about abbreviations. To put the grumbling a bit more humorously, here is a tongue-in-cheek piece on the subject, written by a close friend of mine who writes occasionally in Physiology News under the pseudonym “Mark Cain”. It is a few years old now, having originally appeared in the Autumn of 2001.

I somehow doubt, though, that the number of abbreviations doing the rounds has decreased in the intervening years.

———————————————————————————————————————————-

“WHO IS JACK STAT ANYWAY?”

Here’s a question. Why can’t scientists communicate with one another (let alone with the public) without a bucketload of meaningless abbreviations?

How many times have you sat in a seminar when you realise the speaker has just used, without defining it, an abbreviation you’ve never heard of? And you’re lucky if it’s just one. Usually there are a whole bunch of abbreviations together. They come in packs, like buses do when you’ve been waiting in the rain for half an hour.

I hate abbreviations. I hate everything about them. I hate reading them in papers. I hate having to look them up in the huge lists printed at the start of papers. I hate hearing them in seminars.

Especially when I’ve just woken up and realise I’ve missed a full ten minutes-worth of choice abbreviations.

To add to the confusion, there are now so many abbreviations floating about in the biosciences that one finds the same, or almost the same, abbreviation meaning two completely different things.

An example: SOCS can stand for Suppressor of Cytokine Signalling or “Store-Operated Channels”.

But of course, getting scientists to break off their love affair with abbreviations is a bit like asking a roomful of 40-a-day smokers to quit. We users have all kinds of reasons why we need our abbreviations. It saves space in the journals. It stops us having to repeat long incomprehensible phrases, which can now be replaced by long incomprehensible abbreviations. The abbreviations are a shared coded language, serving to identify “people like us” – the ones who can understand the abbreviations. And of course abbreviations are useful in social situations when we’re talking to other scientists (i.e. people like us).

So despite the efforts of a few abbrevation-phobic journals – like the British Journal of Pharmacology – it seems unlikely that we will ever be able to kiss abbreviations goodbye. So I suppose I’ll have to learn to love them. Which raises the question: do they have any redeeming features?

Well, once in a while. Mainly when they make you laugh. Because a really choice abbreviation can conjure up something entirely different from what the person who coined it intended.

For instance, an abbreviation may sound ugly – like the distinctly nasty-sounding ECAC (“E-Cack”). Or illegal, like CRAC (“crack”). In fact there is a whole sub-family of abbreviations which could be confused with illegal substances, including ICE (interleukin-converting enzyme in scientific circles, a kind of amphetamine in parts of the USA) and JNK (“Junk”, no explanation necessary, or Jun N-terminal kinase).

Personally, I blame the biochemists for all this abbreviation business. Seriously, the rot started when the first biochemist was allowed to get away with referring to a protein by an abbreviation referring to its molecular weight on a gel. Because now we’re stuck with p53, p70, p120, p126 and innumerable others. Ever since that first p-something, biochemists have been the shock troops of abbreviation-ism. Biochemists love their abbreviations. And cell biologists are just as bad. Jak/Stat/Myc/Fos/Jun/Fyn – it sounds like a TV drama about flat-sharing young people with annoying nicknames. You can almost imagine the dialogue:

Hiya. Been out?

Yeah. Down the pub.

c-myc?

See Mick? Yeah – he’s coming over about six for a beer

c-fos?

See Fozz? That no-mark? We’re not inviting him, are we?

What about Fyn?

Finn the Irish lad? Not likely, mate.

Nah. And we’re not letting that !*!! Jack Stat tag along either.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
This entry was posted in Annoyances, Humour, The Life Scientific and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Jargon I can take – its abbreviations I can’t stand

  1. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Hi Austin, nice post. I agree – I think it’s inexcusable not to define abbreviations – slowly and clearly – when first used in a talk. The audience may be your peers, but there are likely to be newbies there too, young trainees who haven’t yet learned the field.

    I do, however, think there is a place for abbreviations, once defined. I mean, it’s a pain to have to say “sodium dodecyl sulphate polyacrylamide gel electrophesis” (21 syllables) every time you want to talk about SDS-PAGE (4 syllables). And just saying ‘gel’ won’t work because there are many different kinds of gels. Like any jargon, an abbreviation can save a lot of time and trouble, but it will only work when everyone is on the same page.

  2. Richard P. Grant says:

    Just don’t say ‘Cruk‘ too loudly…

  3. Bob O'Hara says:

    Yes, I think the problem is not so much the abbreviations as the awareness of the audience. The worst I’ve seen was a textbook on developmental genetics which threw abbreviated gene names around like confetti. I’m sure half could have been removed, without losing and important detail, and the reader wouldn’t be so lost.

  4. Austin Elliott says:

    Yes, agreed, Jenny (and Bob). Mark Cain and I share a taste for a certain amount of comic exaggeration/ranting…

    It is knowing when the abbreviations are “audience-appropriate”, and how many an audience can take on board, that is the problem. Which is another of those things that one perhaps learns well from speaking to a wider range of audiences, cf. doing teaching and public-facing stuff.

    I guess part of my niggle with the cell/mol bio lot is that they often seem to forget that everyone isn’t as obsessed with interested in their particular cell/pathway/protein as they are. This is common to almost all scientists to some extent, of course, obsession being rather the nature of the game. But I think the cell/mol/bio types particularly have got so used to talking only to others in the inner priestly order that they often lose the insight that there are those non-ordinands for whom a bit of simultaneous translation is necessary.

  5. Eva Amsen says:

    My entire PhD lab was working on the protein Nedd4, or substrates thereof, and everyone only used the abbreviation as name. Once in a while someone would tell an audience in a talk that it stood for “neural precursor cell expressed developmentally downregulated protein 4” – but (aside from the fact that it took them forever to memorize the full name) that’s only confusing in the context of it being a ubiquitin ligase. The name is just a remnant from how it was once discovered, and useful to keep for cross referencing, but the abbreviation is much more of a name than that whole sentence. Same for Jun and Fos and such (aren’t those just Japanese numbers/words anyway?)

    My lab mate’s mother used to ask her “How’s Ned doing?” when she asked about her daughter’s work. She could remember the abbreviation easily without knowing what it stood for or did – it’s just a name.

  6. Austin Elliott says:

    Also agreed, Eva. I used to do an entire spoof seminar in which proteins had silly/joke names derived in this way – like “Weight Gain Mutant of Drosophila”, aka WMD, or “Fat Controller Upstream Kinase”, FCUK for short.

    I guess in the same vein of discussion, the problem would be if someone from your lab gave the seminar but didn’t (i) say that Nedd4 was a ubiquitin ligase; and (ii) give some general preamble about what ubiquitin ligases were/did. Again, I’ve seen people do this, or closely analogous things, “the bad way” (without the explanatory bits) in seminars quite a few times.

    What teaching and communication stuff teach you, I think, is to always pose yourself the question:

    “Will the audience understand XYZ if I say/explain it like this?”

  7. Austin Elliott says:

    PS A current bete noire of mine in the “over-use of multiple undefined abbreviations” category are people who give talks about stem cells. Though obviously that’s just the seminars I’ve been to.

  8. Kristi Vogel says:

    The spoof seminar sounds hilarious, Austin; surely there are WTF and OMG proteins somewhere.

    For some cell/molecular biologists who are very fond of using undefined abbreviations, I think the practice almost qualifies as a shibboleth (a word which I love, and learned from reading Tolkien, rather than from the Old Testament) – it identifies you as a member of the “in” crowd of neural stem cell signaling research, or whatever.

    On a related note, earlier this week a colleague described Broca’s aphasia as being characterized by “telegraphic” speech, to the first year medical students. “You know, you use as few words as possible in a telegram, usually just nouns and verbs”. Blank looks. What is this “telegram” of which you speak? I suggested that we change the description to “text message-like speech”.

  9. Richard Wintle says:

    Hm. My father worked for many years at Queen’s University. At some point, in their infinite wisdom, the administration felt that it would be useful to differentiate this Queen’s from other ones, and came up with the useful name “Queen’s University at Kingston”.

    QUAK.

    Also, your blog post title is missing an apostrophe.

    /pedant.

  10. Richard Wintle says:

    Oh, wait, no it isn’t. Obviously I am too clever for my own good. Or perhaps not. QED. LOL. QUAK.

  11. Austin Elliott says:

    Like the “QUAK”, Richard. Now, had they only opened a Department of Integrative Medicine ….

  12. Kausik Datta says:

    Sadly, the answer to that – for many – seems to be:

    Who cares?

  13. Kausik Datta says:

    Hola! The answer was to Austin’s question posed at the very end. I must learn to refresh the page before shooting off a reply.

  14. Kausik Datta says:

    Oh, Austin! LOL!

    Now, had they only opened a Department of Integrative Medicine ….

    My perennial favorite is, of course, a widely talked about point amongst a particular crowd… [drumroll]
    Systems of Complementary and Alternative Medicine – quite illuminating.

  15. Henry Gee says:

    Eva said – My lab mate’s mother used to ask her “How’s Ned doing?” when she asked about her daughter’s work. She could remember the abbreviation easily without knowing what it stood for or did – it’s just a name.

    Many years ago when the world was young, the incoming Editor-in-Chief and Absolute Ruler of All Living Things asked me, in a Domesday-Bookish sort of way, to analyze the accessibility of papers in your favourite journal of record beginning with N. Looking at the cell biology papers, I realized that what was important about most of the papers was not the abbreviations, but the interactions between them. These papers were difficult to understand, therefore, not by reason of the abbreviations per ardua ad astra se, but because the operations describing their interactions were multiply nested, and/or contained a lot of double negatives. Papers would have titles like ‘In which one abbreviation abrogates the repression of the activation of another abbreviation by a third abbreviation’. The general effect is akin to that felt by people trying to read German for the first time – you know what every word in a sentence means, but have no idea if the sentence as a whole means one thing – or its precise opposite. And what do we get?

    bupkes1.

    1bupkes is a mutation in Drosophila in which the phenotype is that the F1 doesn’t love his mother enough to be a chartered accountant but insists on becoming a geneticist instead. Oy, the schlemiel.

  16. Austin Elliott says:

    That is a great analogy with German grammar, Henry, and fits the wording of cell biol paper titles perfectly.

    The complex structure of German is also why Google’s autotranslate does a rather half-hearted job of translating German pages.

    PS I love the word schlemiel. It features in one of my all-time favourite TV play, Jack Rosenthal’s incomparable Bar Mitzvah Boy. I see from this article that the BBC apparently doesn’t think it’s worth putting Jack Rosenthal’s plays out on DVD, which strikes me as thoroughly idiotic. Bar Mitvah Boy is one of those works that is funny the first time you see it, but then rings truer and truer as you get older. A masterpiece, and definitely a must-see if you ever get the chance.

  17. Richard Wintle says:

    I at one time advanced the notion that “polymorphic dinucleotide repeat polymorphisms”, now commonly known as simple sequence repeats (SSRs) or simple tandem repeats (STRs), should be called “CA Repeat Polymorphisms”.

    CARPs.

    Sadly, it never caught on…

  18. Cath Ennis says:

    Re: p53, p21 etc. People in my old lab in Glasgow used to refer to scientists who were “between jobs” as “working on p45“.

    Even very common abbreviations can cause major problems. I recently had to edit a document that used ER as an acronym for both estrogen receptor and endoplasmic reticulum; it took ages to sort it all out as both terms were sprinkled liberally throughout almost every paragraph.
    Eva: “Same for Jun and Fos and such (aren’t those just Japanese numbers/words anyway?)”

    I can’t remember the derivation of Fos, but Jun is derived from the Japanese for 17, having been discovered in ASV Avian Sarcoma Virus 17. (I did my PhD on transcriptional regulation by v-Jun. Incidentally, my supervisor chose to pronounce the abbreviated journal name PNAS in a way that caused much amusement).

  19. Austin Elliott says:

    “Re: p53, p21 etc. People in my old lab in Glasgow used to refer to scientists who were “between jobs” as “working on p45”.

    I like it, Cath. Of course, as an employee in the UK I now get a yearly p60 …though given the current financial stringencies, and the fact that my University has just announced that we are having yet another voluntary severance scheme, I won’t bet on my p60 not getting deglycosylated to the inactive 45 kDa form in due course.

    Re. ER confusion, long ago I had a colleague who was going to a job interview, including doing a seminar. As we worked in a calcium signalling lab on muscle cells, the Sarcoplasmic Reticulum (SR) featured largely in his talk. The usual deal, of course, was to say “the sarcoplasmic reticulum, or SR” the first time you mentioned it, and then just “the SR” thereafter.

    Unfortunately, as we put him through a rehearsal the day before, my colleague was overcome by a complete inability to say the word “reticulum”. Every time he tried, the words

    “sarcoplasmic reptilian

    – came out instead, reducing the rest of the group to helpless tears of laughter. So ultimately his audience for the seminar the following day had to put up with not having the SR defined.

    The colleague in question, BTW, is now a successful and eminent full Professor, so I will keep his name out of it.

  20. Cath Ennis says:

    Heh! My very first research presentation was on my honours project on APC (this one, not that one). I had a very similar problem in that I just could not say “adenomatous”, a problem that was amplified by my nervousness. So I just put the full protein name and the acronym in the title of my first slide and avoided saying it completely!

  21. Stephen Curry says:

    A long time ago when I was working on poliovirus cell entry mechanisms, I was doing experiments with radiolabelled virus of the Sabin strain of the P3 serotype, converting them to a cell-entry intermediate known as the 135S particle (because of its sedimentation behaviour during centrifugation). In presentations these were abbreviated to “35S P3/S 135S particles”, a phrase that could not be taken at speed.

  22. Eva Amsen says:

    I always very much enjoyed talks about Smurfs. You just KNOW they did that abbreviation (“SMAD ubiquitination regulatory factor”) on purpose.

  23. Austin Elliott says:

    Thanks for that, Eva – SMURFS are a new one on me – probably reflecting my insufficient exposure to degradomics (sic).

    Do we know any other cartoon characters that have made it into the scientific Abbvreviatome?

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