Tuesday, February 7, 2017

When Authors Forget What their Own Abbreviations Stand For

One of the gentle amusements from the hours I spend editing economics articles arises when authors forget the literal meaning of their own abbreviations. (Hey, there aren't a lot of belly-laughs in my job; you get your amusement where you can.) Here are five examples from early draft of papers.

An author writes about "IT technology." Of course, IT means "information technology," and no, the context was not about a highly specialized kind of second-order technology for information technology.

An author writes the "CPI price index." Of course, CPI stands for Consumer Price Index.

An  author writes about "the CAPM model." Of course, CAPM means "capital asset pricing model."

An author writes about "the VAT tax." Of course, VAT means "value-added tax."

Au author writes about "a major R&D research project." Of course R&D stands for "research and development," and no, the author was not trying to describe a research project about R&D.

Acronyms and other specialized terminology always serve two functions. As economists and other specialists are quick to argue, they can be an exceptionally useful tool in professional communication, letting you refer to complex concepts in a compact form. But as economists and other specialists are slower to admit, the easy and casual use of acronyms and abbreviations is also a way of acting like part of an in-group, and of signalling to those outside the group your high-and-mighty status as an authority on the subject.

Again, I believe that both of these functions are always in play. One hopes that the first explanation based in the functionality gained from using acronyms and abbreviations will tend to predominate. One is always entitled to hope.

While the use of acronyms and abbreviations in economics may sometimes be overdone or even twee, at least little harm is done in the process (except for the pain suffered by hypersensitive editors). They are mostly just a sloppy signal that the author's brain isn't fully engaged and in a few cases can become comprehension-threatening, as the reader tries to figure out if the combination of abbreviation and repeated terms has some subtle meaning.

But misuse of acronyms and abbreviations can have bigger consequences. Text messaging has created a world where friendships and even true love can rise and fall based on the use of acronyms and emoticons. In medicine, for example, the National Coordinating Council for Medication Error Reporting and Prevention has an official list of abbreviations to avoid when writing prescriptions, because of the heightened risk of medication errors.  To make your blood run cold, here are a few of their examples:
Acronyms and abbreviations are powerful medicine, and should be used in limited doses--always remembering what you are using. It doesn't kill many more pixels to spell out terms.