You don’t know what I mean? LOL

2 minute read

The proliferation of TLAs (three-letter acronyms) and other abbreviations is making science more obscure than it has to be.

Back in the last century, when your Back Page hack was but a callow reporter, the use of acronyms in writing was frowned upon darkly.

The practice was considered lazy and presumptive.

And it still is, at least in reputable journalistic circles. But, alas, in the scientific world, the use of TLAs (three letter acronyms) and other initialisms is more common than ants at a picnic.

What’s more, the ever-increasing use of jargon and acronymic shorthand is making science less useful and more complex for society as a whole, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology and the University of South Australia argue.

The researchers analysed 24 million scientific article titles and 18 million abstracts between 1950 and 2019, looking for trends in acronym use.

Their findings, published recently in eLife, reveal a staggering 1.1 million unique acronyms were created over this period, with many of those “causing confusion, ambiguity and misunderstanding, making science less accessible”.

While some acronyms, such as DNA, are so widely understood they rarely require expansion or explanation, others serve only to make life easier for the authors and not their readers.

Such as? How about WTF, for example. We hazard a guess most folks would not instantly think: water-soluble thiourea-formaldehyde for that one.

Or what about UA? According to researcher Dr Zoe Doubleday: “The acronym UA has 18 different meanings in medicine, and six of the 20 most widely used acronyms have multiple common meanings in health and medical literature.”

Other popular acronyms include CI (confidence interval, chief investigator, cubic inch, common interface), US (United States, ultrasound, urinary system) and HR (heart rate, hazard ratio).

“When I look at the top 20 scientific acronyms of all time, it shocks me that I recognise only about half. We have a real problem here,” she says.

Dr Doubleday suggests journals could help stem the trend of acronym overuse by restricting the number of acronyms used in a paper.

“In the future it might be possible – software permitting – for journals to offer two versions of the same paper, one with acronyms and one without, so that the reader can select the version they prefer.”

All we can say is: GLWT (good luck with that).

If you see something stupid, say something stupid… Send your TLAs for The Back Page to

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