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Acronyms Are Not the Answer in Health Science Communications

From working in academic health communications, I have seen the following scenario many times. A research team at a university wins a grant to conduct a study. The team has to recruit study participants. To do this, the team must market their study. The team decides as its first order of business to come up with a study acronym.

Unfortunately, centering a marketing strategy on a “great” acronym gets away from what really matters and invests too much in a communications tool that has many drawbacks.

Before I go on, a reminder that an acronym is an abbreviation -- “a shortened from of a word or a phrase” that is "formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word.” IBM is an abbreviation, and NASA is an acronym (and an abbreviation). 

Why Acronyms Aren’t Effective

Acronyms (and abbreviations) cause all sorts of problems in communications:

The Alphabet Soup Effect

Acronyms simply do not read well in text—especially because more and more, and especially online, people scan rather than read. Using acronyms and abbreviations draws eyeballs because that is the effect of all caps, but these groupings of letters are meaningless on their own. The confusion this creates is called an alphabet soup effect. Style guides often discourage use of acronyms or abbreviations for this reason, unless widely recognized.

 The alphabet soup effect: hard to read, and boring 

The alphabet soup effect: hard to read, and boring 

Hiding Key Words

Acronyms and abbreviations hide the key words in a name, and key words are incredibly important for new audiences. Would anyone guess that ECHO stands for “Ending Child Obesity” or DAWN stands for “Diabetes, Attitudes, Wishes, and Needs”? A web page titled “The DAWN Trial,” may leave a reader thinking they are being asked to enroll in a study of early morning hours, or dishwasher detergent. This news story from Duke about the "Murdock" Study leaves me with almost no idea of what they are researching. It doesn’t help to include both acronym and full name in a headline, like  “ECHO: Ending Child Obesity,” because the acronyms grabs the attention.

Convoluted Project Names 

To work, acronyms often lead to convoluted names for studies or projects. Take for instance the (totally real) PICASSO-IMT: PreventIon of CArdiovascular events in iSchemic Stroke patients with high risk of cerebral hemOrrhage-Intima-Media Thickness study. The hilariously random capitalization required to form this acronym creates a long and confusing name, which most people will scan right past. It doesn't help that the name is packed with medical jargon.

Unsophisticated 

Acronyms are a signal of trying to market without knowing what one is doing. It's truly better not to try, in my opinion. Professional marketers don’t sit around all day brainstorming brilliant acronyms. Acronyms such as MICRO-HOPE, APHRODITE, and MR-IMPACT, all reported in this BMJ study, are truly groan-inducing. Amplifying the lack of sophistication is how common acronyms are, as this Medscape article points out:

Soon, there were so many acronyms that we started to repeat ourselves. In a 2015 editorial, Cheng[15] tabulated 40 different studies that use the acronym HEART. A search of ClinicalTrials.gov also turns up 47 SMART, 16 HOPE, and six CURE studies. There are even a few BATMAN trials, for who wouldn't want to be associated with the Caped Crusader?

Corny acronyms like BATMAN are even less cool when several people have come up with them.

Bad for Search 

Because abbreviations and acronyms are so rarely unique, they could weaken your search engine performance. If someone I meet in passing gives me his card, and it only says AEA on it for the organization name, my search for it will yield American Energy Alliance, Aquatic Exercise Association, Actors’ Equity Association, and many more. A  "clever" acronym like PICASSO doesn’t solve this problem. In fact, it is worse: your study has to compete in search results with one of history’s most written about artists.

The One Reason for Acronyms & Abbreviations

Although I hate acronyms and gratuitous abbreviating, I have to concede that there is one good marketing justification for their use. Within small communities, such as a scientific field, acronyms are recognized. PICASSO probably stands out more in the world of ischemic stroke researchers than a study titled Ischemic Stroke Study. And it is as important that scientists reach other scientists as it is that they reach general audiences. This is because peer recognition leads to more citations of one's research, which is important for  a scientist's career, for the spread of quality research, and ultimately for improving health (or technology, or engineering, etc.).

Should Scientists Stop Using Acronyms Altogether?

So what is a scientist to do? Use acronyms and sound lame? Stop using acronyms and lose your scientific peers?

My advice is to find a happy medium. When marketing, make your priority to come up with a clear, simple, and informative study name. Use that name with patients and most laypeople but use its abbreviations when writing for scientists, in academic papers. A good example of this is the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, or MESA. This is not a clever acronym. No one strained to create MESA the way they did PICASSO. But a scientist who researches heart disease will be familiar with MESA while a patient with atherosclerosis might take notice of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis if they see a recruitment ad.

The popularity of acronyms is part of a larger misperception about communications, which is that it is all about a name or a logo. Your “brand” is never going to be defined only or mostly by your name. Your most successful communications and brand strategy in the long run is doing a successful study. Its success depends as much on factors like the quality of the research question, the ability to retain participants, the rigor of data collection, and the significance of the results, as it does on the name.

WritingElaine MeyerComment