Image: Wikimedia Commons.
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The voice of sanity (finally!)

Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

How many times have you tried to understand a sentence from a scientific article only to give up thinking it was written in a foreign language? Yes, I know, for many English – the lingua franca of international science, technology, business, aviation… – is a foreign language. What I’m referring to is the over-use of acronyms, abbreviated words or phrases and jargon, which irritatingly decorate far too many scientific papers.

Whilst one acknowledges that discipline-specific technical terms are necessary, all too often this terminology seems deliberately designed to be understood only by ‘those in the know’ – i.e. the privileged few admitted to some secret society – and intended to keep out ‘impostors’ and prevent the barbarians from entering the citadel of truth and polluting its ranks. This approach can be self-defeating in that it alienates people – potential recruits – to the particular scientific discipline. And, if it is perpetuated and becomes widespread in other forms of science writing, then it runs counter to the promotion of the public understanding of science (PUS – who on earth dreamt up that acronym??) remit with which scientists are charged. Furthermore, such terms – far from helping – usually get in the way of clear thought and expression or – and worse! – comprehension on behalf of the readers. Language should be about communication, moving an idea from the brain of one individual into another’s. To work effectively it should do this in an efficient, clear and unambiguous way.

Well, it seems that enough is enough: the case against the over-use of acronyms and the like in scientific papers has been made in a Nature Methods Editorial (8: 521, 2011), albeit by ‘author unavailable’, entitled ‘NUAP (no unnecessary acronyms please)’. Apart from a major issue that few so-called acronyms are actually acronyms, the short piece concludes that ‘acronyms used sparingly and in the right circumstances can aid in communication. But overuse or improper use has the opposite effect. We hope researchers will find the right balance’. Hear, hear! And whilst I’m astride my hobby-horse, can we not restrict – ban? – use of the word ‘novel’ that appears so frequently in article titles ‘Novel gene for this’, ‘Novel gene for that’, etc. Well – and I realise that this must come as a shock to many – genes aren’t actually novel(!). They’ve probably been around for hundreds of millions of years since they were first intelligently designed, created and/or evolved, but in the 20th and 21st centuries they aren’t novel. OK, we humans may have recently discovered what a gene does, but over-hyping the work by tagging it with the adjective ‘novel’ is too much for the more humble amongst us (and, anyway, only serves to emphasise our own ignorance of matters biological). I feel so much better now! Sorry, but sometimes you just got to let it out.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that international plant science journal for almost 10 years. As a freelance plant science communicator I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Plant Cuttings [] (and formerly at Botany One []). In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]


  • Here’s a favorite, a winner of the annual worst writing contest. This truly boggles the mind.

    Total presence breaks on the univocal predication of the exterior absolute the absolute existent (of that of which it is not possible to univocally predicate an outside, while the equivocal predication of the outside of the absolute exterior is possible of that of which the reality so predicated is not the reality, viz., of the dark/of the self, the identity of which is not outside the absolute identity of the outside, which is to say that the equivocal predication of identity is possible of the self-identity which is not identity, while identity is univocally predicated of the limit to the darkness, of the limit of the reality of the self). This is the real exteriority of the absolute outside: the reality of the absolutely unconditioned absolute outside univocally predicated of the dark: the light univocally predicated of the darkness: the shining of the light univocally predicated of the limit of the darkness: actuality univocally predicated of the other of self-identity: existence univocally predicated of the absolutely unconditioned other of the self. The precision of the shining of the light breaking the dark is the other-identity of the light. The precision of the absolutely minimum transcendence of the dark is the light itself/the absolutely unconditioned exteriority of existence for the first time/the absolutely facial identity of existence/the proportion of the new creation sans depth/the light itself ex nihilo: the dark itself univocally identified, i.e., not self-identity identity itself equivocally, not the dark itself equivocally, in “self-alienation,” not “self-identity, itself in self-alienation” “released” in and by “otherness,” and “actual other,” “itself,” not the abysmal inversion of the light, the reality of the darkness equivocally, absolute identity equivocally predicated of the self/selfhood equivocally predicated of the dark (the reality of this darkness the other-self-covering of identity which is the identification person-self).
    D.G. Leahy, 1996, Foundation: Matter the Body Itself, State University of New York Press

  • Thanks for the nice post. Actually, we have been banning the use of ‘novel’ and ‘new’ in titles and abstracts for several years. I would not be surprised if one of them gets through now and then though given how often authors try to slip it in and how easy it is to overlook it.

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