I wrote an editorial in 2012 [BCMJ;54:61] discussing the use of abbreviations in medical writing, essentially pleading with scientific writers to cease and desist. In the 9 long years since my editorial’s publication, the use of abbreviations has not improved and actually seems to be worsening, which is why I am revisiting this topic. My last editorial was quite cheeky, as I used more and more abbreviations as I went along, which perhaps diminished the message. I will attempt to be much clearer this time.
An abbreviation is a short form of a word or phrase used to represent the whole for convenience or to improve comprehension. The key takeaway is the part about improving comprehension. Our brains readily accept commonly used abbreviations and move seamlessly along without hesitation while reading. When faced with the abbreviation MI, for example, most health care providers automatically register that the individual has suffered a myocardial infarction and are able to carry on reading without having to wonder what it stands for and rescan the article above for a definition. Medicine is full of commonly used and accepted abbreviations such as BMI, bp, DM, TSH, and PE. These are not the problem, as readers’ eyes pass over them easily, with good comprehension.
Not to pick on any particular author, but on perusal of some recently submitted manuscripts, here are some abbreviations I found: NROP, TUG, CHR, RTPCR, LUS, OUD, and PWUD. Perhaps these abbreviations are commonly used by individuals within their respective fields of medicine, but they don’t translate well to a general readership. I’m pretty sure that most of you don’t know what they stand for.
So, what about the whole convenience reason for using abbreviations? This is what pronouns and other nouns are for. Using a pronoun is just as easy as using an abbreviation and is equally succinct. If you are abbreviating picky narrow-minded editor by using PNME, it is much more effective to use the pronoun he.
Please limit the use of abbreviations in your writing. Frequent use of abbreviations turns a good article into a manuscript that reads like fingernails across a chalkboard. Now don’t get me wrong: I appreciate you taking the time to create and submit papers, studies, letters, and so on. I know this process is difficult and requires time, effort, and fortitude. Taking a risk by submitting your written word for others to comment on in a peer review process is a brave venture, and I admire everyone who does it.
I am just asking for the process to proceed more smoothly by not forcing us to continually scan the manuscript looking for the definition of yet another obscure abbreviation. This will improve your article’s chance of being accepted for publication and of reaching its real audience: your colleagues.
—David R. Richardson, MD (PNME)
Above is the information needed to cite this article in your paper or presentation. The International Committee
of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommends the following citation style, which is the now nearly universally
accepted citation style for scientific papers:
Halpern SD, Ubel PA, Caplan AL, Marion DW, Palmer AM, Schiding JK, et al. Solid-organ transplantation in HIV-infected patients. N Engl J Med. 2002;347:284-7.
About the ICMJE and citation styles
The ICMJE is small group of editors of general medical journals who first met informally in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1978 to establish guidelines for the format of manuscripts submitted to their journals. The group became known as the Vancouver Group. Its requirements for manuscripts, including formats for bibliographic references developed by the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), were first published in 1979. The Vancouver Group expanded and evolved into the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), which meets annually. The ICMJE created the Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals to help authors and editors create and distribute accurate, clear, easily accessible reports of biomedical studies.
An alternate version of ICMJE style is to additionally list the month an issue number, but since most journals use continuous pagination, the shorter form provides sufficient information to locate the reference. The NLM now lists all authors.
BCMJ standard citation style is a slight modification of the ICMJE/NLM style, as follows:
- Only the first three authors are listed, followed by "et al."
- There is no period after the journal name.
- Page numbers are not abbreviated.
For more information on the ICMJE Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals, visit www.icmje.org