Initialisms and acronyms pervade science. I mean, they’re pervasive everywhere, but scientists use them a lot. And each field and subfield and subsubfield has its own set of acronyms.
I can be sorta a snob when it comes to grammar and acronyms; I like sentences that I can understand. So I decided to set down some guidelines for making a good acronym. Now these are neither exhaustive nor necessary: I’m sure I forgot some rules and I know that some good acronyms fail some of the rules. I just wanted to get something down on epaper; maybe y’all can help me flesh out the list.
Guidelines for Introducing a New Acronym in a Paper (GINAP)
- First off, for new compounds, basically anything goes as long as the acronym is simpler than the IUPAC name.
Of course, you should check whether the chemical or a similar structure has already published with an acronym. If it hasn’t, then just choose the major letters and make an acronym so you can refer to it throughout the paper and other papers. For instance, 6-propionyl-2-dimethylaminonaphthalene (PRODAN) is a great acronym; it has the added bonus that once can pronounce the word. It could also have been PPDMAN: not as sexy but it would accomplish the purpose.
- Ask yourself, Does this method/system/etc. need a new acronym? Does it deserve one?
Not all new ideas necessitate a new word. Not all ideas you publish will be new. For these reasons, it’s important to question how important it is to introduce a new acronym in the first place. If your method is a slight variation on a common practice, or a common practice applied to a new system, maybe you don’t need a new acronym. Moreover, if you can describe what you are doing with a few words (or in a few sentences one time in the methods section), then there’s another reason not to come up with a new acronym. This guideline has two goals: (a) to avoid further obfuscating the terminology in your field and (b) to avoid taking credit for a whole method if you only contributed a minor part. For instance, polarized radiation imaging of single-molecules (PRISM) would be a fun acronym, but people have been doing that for decades without naming it.
- Don’t try to be too cute
Acronyms are best justified by making sentences more clear. So come up with an acronym that makes sense, not one that is catchy.
- Make the acronym descriptive and meaningful
If an informed person knows what each letter of the acronym stands for, they should understand the method (or system or instrument or whatever). For instance, TEM stands for transmission electron microscopy; a reasonable scientist could understand that this refers to a microscopy technique that involves transmitting electrons through a sample. But what does mean cleverly harnessing the absorption of single molecules (CHASM) mean? (OK, I made that one up.)
- Make the acronym unambiguous
I think that each letter should be unambiguous: if a letter could easily stand for two opposites, then clarify by adding another letter. For instance, “I” could stand for “inter-” or “intramolecular,” so for excited-state proton transfers, ESIPT could be ESInterPT or ESIntraPT. Another example is Förster resonant energy transfer (FRET): because the ambiguity with the “F,” the first word is often referred to as “fluorescence,” which is wrong. (My favorite exception to this rule is laser. Laser is one of the best acronyms ever, but the “s” could easily stand for “stimulated” or “spontaneous,” the two types of emission. If you know how a laser works, it’s obvious that it’s amplification by stimulated emission, but the acronym doesn’t necessarily help someone who doesn’t know.)
- Be consistent
Be consistent in which letters you use. For instance, GINAP above uses each capitalized letter when in title case (it skips the prepositions and articles). PRODAN isn’t consistent because “pro” comes from “propionyl.” FlAsH (Fluorescein Arsenical Hairpin binder) is not consistent, but the capitalization indicates that.
OK, what else did I forget? Or what are your favorite acronyms? Does anybody know of a good list of bad scientific acronyms out there? (NMR acronyms don’t count because they’re all bad. COSY. Pffft!)