Research acronyms: the good, the bad and the ugly

We all love a good research acronym. Particularly if they are catchy, well thought-out and have some relevance to the piece of research in question. However, a group of dedicated acronym watchers from Denmark believe the prevalence of acronyms in clinical trials is increasing at the expense of their semantic and aesthetic quality. Once reserved for cardiologists, acronyms seem to be creeping into the fields of rheumatology, endocrinology, psychiatry and pulmonary medicine they say.

Using a unique scoring tool  the researchers searched the literature and identified  a total of 1149 acronyms used in papers published between 2000 and 2012. Overall  4.4% (n=42) contained poor language in an attempt to improve on the acronym, 11.5% (n=109) were designated as “cool,” with cardiology and pulmonary medicine in the lead with 12.9% and 10.7%, respectively, and psychiatry, rheumatology, and endocrinology following with 2.8%, 5.8% and 9.8%, respectively.

Although 12.8% (n=122) of all acronyms were classified as excessively pretentious, this proportion varied between specialties: from psychiatry (19.4%), rheumatology (15.4%), pulmonary medicine (14.3%), endocrinology (13.9%), to, lastly, cardiology (11.8%).

Between the top 25 and bottom 25 acronyms, studies with good acronyms had more citations than studies with poor acronyms. For manuscript titles with good acronyms the authors observed a non-significant trend towards publication in journals with a higher impact factor.

Given the academic importance of acronyms, the authors were surprised by the lack of effort dedicated to their construction. The growth of acronym use, especially those of poor quality, should be resisted, they concluded in their paper published in the BMJ.

All of the authors declared that they had been involved in studies that have used acronyms.

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