October 19, 2007 at 2:51 pm | | everyday science, literature, science community

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)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.)
  6. 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!)


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  1. Dude, you need to edit your entry if you’re going to claim grammar snobbery.

    Anyway, I like acronyms that are Short (if possible), Pronounceable, Reverse-engineerable (if possible), Useful, and New, and Goddam-cute. Put simply, acronyms should be SPRUNG. (Ok – I agree that cuteness for cutenesses sake should be avoided.)

    Comment by jordan — October 19, 2007 #

  2. i like SPRUNG! i think the “R” stands for my rule #4, right?
    and i fixed one typo (i left out the verb in a sentence!)

    Comment by sam — October 20, 2007 #

  3. Yes, the “R” is pretty much your rule #4.

    Comment by jordan — October 21, 2007 #

  4. Let me guess, you had FIONA in mind when you wrote rule number 2.

    Comment by bob — October 22, 2007 #

  5. well, bob, the FIONA controversy is kinda old news. there are new acronyms every day to cringe at. and it’s hard to stay “mad” at Ahmet. ;)

    Comment by sam — October 22, 2007 #

  6. ImAWESM: IMaging All Wavelengths Emitted from a Single Molecule

    Comment by sam — October 22, 2007 #

  7. I would add a rule number 0. Never ever use an acronym that is a popular word in English language. Never. If you do, it’s almost impossible to find your work through search engine, especially if it’s fresh (although Google is getting smarter, looking for SMART it gives the SMART database as a third hit).

    NAR web server and database issues hold a number of such bad examples (like FISH or HARMONY).

    Comment by Pawel — November 6, 2007 #

  8. whoa, here’s a great one:

    Comment by sam — November 15, 2007 #

  9. […] become another tool in the biophysical toolbox (along with TIRF, FRET, FLIM, FRAP, and other acronyms). Just you […]

    Pingback by Everyday Scientist » EDSEL: coolest paper of 2008 (so far) — January 11, 2008 #

  10. Need help with an acronym for Juliet. It will be a ladies lunch group. Thanks so much

    Comment by s. shatzman — August 16, 2008 #

  11. ha! i’m not an acronym service. but how about:

    Join Us for Lunch Invariantly Every Thursday

    Comment by sam — August 16, 2008 #

  12. […] logical switching attained reconstruction (PULSAR)” microscopy? There are already too many acronyms for this technique: PALM, F-PALM, and […]

    Pingback by Everyday Scientist » PULSAR?! — October 22, 2008 #

  13. PhD Comic

    Comment by sam — November 20, 2008 #

  14. […] implementing acronyms into one’s speech and writing is a journey, not a destination. The Everyday Scientist Blog offers beginners a roadmap for success. Here is a summary of the blog’s Guidelines for […]

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  15. J-just

    compare to
    R-really or retired

    Comment by maxschnell — January 14, 2010 #

  16. Ju=Just

    Comment by susan — August 28, 2010 #

  17. […] for imaging in nanoscale topography (SPRAIPAINT). This acronym fails almost all my ”GINAP” rules for initialisms, but I still love it because it joins the plethora of acronyms in the […]

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