Still about boring papers: acronyms and abbreviations

quantum-acronymsOne single feature that contributes the most to make papers bad to read is the use of jargons, specially in the form of acronyms. Although inevitable in scientific texts, can we manage them better?

Acronyms are great. They really make a great job by shortening a complex concept into a clever combination of few symbols. Used without restrain, however, acronyms turn the text into a nightmare for the reader.

Some acronyms are so popular that have the status of words. Nobody minds to define UV, laser, or DNA anymore.

Other acronyms are well-known among specialists, but are not generally recognized. This is the case, for instance, of CASSCF (complete active space self-consistent field) or R2PI (resonant two-photons ionization). The good practice is to define such acronyms in their first appearance in the text.

I would go one step further. Depending on the publication and target audience, we should not only tell what the acronym stands for, but also give some short additional explanation. Take CASSCF once more. If I am writing a text for the Journal of Chemical Theory and Computation, where I expect a public of theorists, it’s ok to only tell what CASSCF stands for. Chances are that all my readers are familiar with the method.

If, however, I’m writing a paper to the Journal of Chemical  Physics, my public may be much broader (at least, I hope so), including experimentalists who probably never heard of CASSCF. In this case, to tell what it stands for is of little help.

In such situations, we should be generous and add few words more, like

We computed the energies at CASSCF (complete active space self-consistent field) level. This computational method allows to describe regions of the potential energy surface with multiconfigurational character, although it lacks dynamic electron correlation.

I don’t think any computational chemist would get annoyed by this bit of condescension, but possibly it could easy the way through the paper for experimentalists. From my side, I can’t count how many times I had to interrupt the reading of a paper to google for non-familiar terminologies, quite often explained with a dry “the experimental methodology was described elsewhere”.

A third type of acronyms often pops up in the papers. They are nonstandard abbreviations of expressions or concepts that the author uses many times during the text, like PES for potential energy surface or DEC for dynamic electron correlation.

Such abbreviations had their reason of being in the time of mechanical typewriters, I guess. I can’t understand them today though. They interrupt the text flow every time they appear. Even if the author feels comfortable writing with such abbreviations, it’s a zero work to use a “find and replace” tool when editing the last version of the manuscript.

As an example, let’s work on a paragraph that I took at random from one of the papers I have been reading recently:

“Different and recent ab initio quantum chemical studies on the PEHs of the pyrimidine nucleobase monomers have described CIs representing crossings of S1, both with ππ* and nπ* nature, and S0 PEHs, and even CIs involving three states have been determined in cytosine and uracil.”

What? Serious, I’m a specialist on this topic and I can’t read through this paragraph!

Let’s see how it would read after replacing the abbreviations and the confusing sequence of comas:

“Different and recent ab initio quantum chemical studies on the potential energy hypersurfaces of the pyrimidine nucleobase monomers have described conical intersections representing crossings of the first excited state—both with ππ* and nπ* nature—and the ground state; and even conical intersections involving three states have been determined in cytosine and uracil.”

Still clumsy, but the reading flows better. We don’t have to go back in the text to remember what PEH stands for and whether CI means “conical intersection” or “configuration interaction”.

The dash and the semi-colon create a hierarchy among the elements. (We could have used parenthesis instead of dashes for the same effect.) But at this point, things are rather subjective. I think reading goes better with them. I’m not sure whether everyone would agree, would you?

In fact, even the technical terms and the general phrasing could still be simplified without losing content:

“Recent computational studies on the potential-energy surfaces of pyrimidine nucleobases have revealed many conical intersections between the first excited state (either with ππ* or nπ* nature) and the ground state. Even intersections involving three states have been found in cytosine and uracil.”

I think it is significantly better now. I eliminated redundancies (“different and recent”; “nucleobase monomers”), replaced unnecessary technical terms (“ab initio quantum chemical studies”; “hypersurfaces”), and split the original long sentence in two.

It’s still a hard technical text. There’s no way around. We are doing science, not writing for a variety magazine. But at least the chances of keeping the reader awake are getting better.

MB



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