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Plain Language is Preferred (PLiP)

Twa, Michael D., OD, PhD

Optometry and Vision Science: July 2018 - Volume 95 - Issue 7 - p 555–556
doi: 10.1097/OPX.0000000000001250
EDITORIALS

Editor in Chief Birmingham, AL

So, when did we become so infatuated with abbreviations and acronyms? A brief search shows that the term acronym was coined in the 1940s. That is not to say that acronyms did not exist before then, but their use accelerated after World War II (WWII) and the birth of the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) program in the 1960s. The tradition of undecipherable acronyms is alive and well in the United States (US) Department of Defense (DoD) to this day. The term Acronymophilia was published as the title of an editorial in the British Medical Journal in 1994.1 The author, Cheng,1 studied the language of cardiologists who are apparently like vision scientists and others in their love for creating acronyms.

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ACRONYMS CAN DEFINE A COMMUNITY OR SUBCULTURE

There is a difference between acronyms and abbreviations. Abbreviations are normally pronounced as a string of letters, such as FBI or USA. Acronyms are normally pronounced like a word and serve as a substitute for a string of words, for example, LASER (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation). Acronyms are a form of jargon or slang and are meant to reflect the common language of a community, a sort of shorthand that insiders will understand. In this way, language and its usage can be a very powerful tool used to efficiently convey messages or signify membership within an exclusive group where fluency with the common phrases of a community can provide benefits unavailable to nonmembers.

A part of the growth and use of acronyms is a natural development of language patterns within a cohort. It is a natural thing for groups of humans to bond over language. Phrases become a kind of shorthand for ideas or images making communication more efficient, in theory. Altered words or phrases that become common can become codes for colleagues. Most professions have their own jargon. In police work, perpetrators of criminal activity become perps, APB is an all-points bulletin, MPS is a mobile data terminal, and PC is probable cause not a personal computer or politically correct. Just for fun, Table 1 is a compilation of abbreviations and acronyms for comparison across several disciplines to demonstrate how communications can be misunderstood and sometimes amusing.

TABLE 1

TABLE 1

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ACCEPTABLE USE OF ACRONYMS

For Optometry and Vision Science (OVS), the body text of the article should not contain any nonstandard abbreviations or acronyms. Jargon, acronyms, and nonstandard abbreviations are a barrier to clearly communicating an author's ideas and discoveries. Moreover, archival scientific publications will persist beyond the life of the authors and current expressions in the field. Published articles must also be accessible to readers from a wide range of disciplines outside vision science (some that may not even currently exist). For these reasons, the body text of the article usually should not contain any abbreviations or acronyms. Careful consideration should be given to any abbreviations or acronyms thought to be standard terms that are widely accepted in the field, for example, HIV, IOP, MRI, and AMD. When writing for Optometry and Vision Science, most abbreviations are unnecessary and standard English is always preferred. Names of companies, products, or units should be used as proper nouns, for example, MNREAD Acuity Chart and logMAR.

Limited use of acronyms is permitted in the abstract, figure legends, and tables, provided they are necessary and explicitly declared where they are used. If used at all, they must be declared separately in each element, for example, the abstract, each figure legend, and each table, so that every element can be fully understood apart from the full text of the article or any other element.

Almost all clinical chart abbreviations are nonstandard and therefore unsuitable for an archival publication. Examples of clinical abbreviations that are not permitted include the following: OD, OS, OU, CI, CSF, PAL, BF, BFS, BSCVA, VA, CL, CYL, VT, SPH, CF, BRAO, BRVO, ERM, ERG, SLE, and XT. Abbreviations and their use vary widely between clinics and across the globe. Vision science encompasses a wide range of scientific disciplines from genetics to epidemiology and from optics to engineering and computer science. It is common that readers outside clinical disciplines or vision science may use the same abbreviations to mean different things. The use of abbreviations and acronyms is therefore strongly discouraged and rarely permitted.

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ACRONYMS—WHY FIGHT IT?

The primary purpose of a scientific publication is to convey new knowledge so that it can be understood and used by others. For this reason alone, plain language is preferable to the use of acronyms. Nevertheless, Optometry and Vision Science (OVS) will not succeed in bending the will of authors (or the larger community of scientists and clinicians) habituated to using acronyms that are sometimes widely accepted and perfectly well understood. The obvious, but difficult, line to draw is to how widely accepted and how well understood an abbreviation or acronym may be before it is acceptable.

The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) has wrestled with this one and recently published a document listing common acronyms in vision science.2 Not long after the idea was raised, suggestions came rolling in from all corners of the world. Disagreements ensued; some claimed the same acronym for different meanings, and others invented new ones for the community to behold and consider. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also has a database that it claims it will update quarterly to help navigate for the uninitiated.3 The Web site reports that the last update was submitted on September 8, 2014. Because there is no end in sight, consider this a plea for thoughtful consideration. Before you choose to use an acronym or nonstandard abbreviation, consider these questions: is it really necessary? Does it add to the clarity and understanding of what I am trying to communicate? If there is any doubt, leave it out!

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REFERENCES

1. Cheng TO. Acronymophilia. BMJ 1990;309:683–4.
2. ARVO. Glossary: Eye and Vision Acronyms. Available at: https://www.arvo.org/globalassets/arvo/education/glossary---acronyms---final.pdf. Accessed June 4, 2018.
3. FDA U. FDA Acronyms and Abbreviations [last updated: September 8, 2014]. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/aboutfda/fdaacronymsabbreviations/default.htm. Accessed June 4, 2018.
© 2018 American Academy of Optometry