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The Editors' Notepad

The goal of this blog is to help EPIDEMIOLOGY authors produce papers that clearly and effectively communicate their science.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Abbreviations, Clarified

My inaugural post to this blog discusses abbreviations and how we treat them at EPIDEMIOLOGY: mostly, I’m afraid, we avoid them, as you’ll know if you have worked with me. But today, I am happy to explain why. Epidemiologists, we are in this together.

In my role as Deputy Editor, also known as Science Wordsmith-in-Chief, I spend more time considering and (usually) spelling out abbreviations than on any other class of edits. That’s because, in addition to scientific accuracy, a top goal is to deliver papers that are clearly written and as effortless for our target audience to read as possible. 

And as someone with an epidemiology PhD whose training may have gotten a little rusty, I may be a useful test case. I’m sure, for some of you, reading a methods paper is like falling off a log. You do this stuff all the time. You can glance briefly at a formula consisting of stacks of Greek letters meaningfully embellished with bold and italics, and the concept behind a method for correcting for selection bias crystallizes in your mind in three dimensions. Similarly, a new regression model with a 10-syllable name attached to a 10-letter abbreviation sticks firmly in your mind. I know, because I trained with many of you and now I read and am impressed by your papers…which I have to read slowly. I envy you a bit, but never mind: mainly, I want to learn what you to have to offer.

But because I don’t get to spend most of my days immersed in methods and biostatistics, it’s helpful to have an unfamiliar abbreviation spelled out each time it’s used. Our readers and I sometimes have to work to decipher and internalize the concept behind the method. Our work is easier when we can avoid thinking ‘Wait, what does that stand for?’ and having to scroll up, find, and re-read the definition…and usually lose the train of thought.

Overall, spelling out abbreviations helps forward our goal of publishing epidemiology papers that read like English, not like jargon.  Therefore, please think of your wider community of colleagues and spell it out—our rule of thumb is whether it would be understandable to someone outside your subspecialty. If you don’t, I will, and rather than use search-and-replace I will do it each time individually and look for ways to avoid wordiness and awkward phrasings that sometimes arise. However, it does take time, and really, I suspect you can do it more smoothly and accurately than I can, if you do so as you write.

We understand there are other reasons you might want to use abbreviations. For example:

* To popularize a new method. We sympathize. But if the name of a method is really unwieldy when spelled out, an acronym will naturally evolve, and there may be workarounds (see below). Meanwhile, as above, allowing broadly trained epidemiologists access via conceptual transparency that avoids the hard work of repeated scrolling up to a definition, can also accomplish the goal of popularizing it.

* It’s the shorthand you use within your research team.

* To meet the word limit. Sorry, but you’re busted, and my colleagues who write a lot assure me there is always a way to shorten a paper that does not compromise clarity.

* To avoid typing. Really? OK, never mind, I can’t believe you would do this.

Meanwhile, there are additional reasons to spell out:

* To avoid ambiguity. As an example, MSM abbreviates “men who have sex with men” to one community of epidemiologists and “marginal structural modeling” to a second community. For a reader who is not an enshrined member of either community, the abbreviation is ambiguous without context to help.

* To make sentences flow better. Many abbreviations are more awkward to read and pronounce than their spelled-out forms.

* To avoid bureaucracy-speak, which is not a recognized dialect of English. Those who work for large government agencies should be particularly able to relate to this.

So, when will we allow an abbreviation?

* When it is likely to be familiar and unambiguous to most epidemiologists - I understand this is a judgment call, and in some cases my thinking has evolved.

* When it is impossibly unwieldy to read when spelled out.

* When it is used as a variable name in an adjacent equation (in which case it will also be italicized).

* In tables and figures, to help save space, but it must also be defined in a legend or caption.

* For study names and similar proper nouns.

If spelling out is moderately wordy or unwieldy, I will try to find a workaround (for example: ‘hereafter referred to as…’), such as a partial spelling out, or using pronouns. And finally, I often don’t make these decisions unilaterally, and will check with other editors.