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