A chemistry prescription

Many moons ago, I had a few thoughts about how scientific words are pronounced, and particularly wondered if different pronunciations might reflect where scientists were trained, either in a certain field or a specific country. The precursor to this question, though, is where do the words originate?

One obvious possibility is that once a new word or definition appears in print, scientists across the world can see the article and use the new term going forward. This would explain how groups of people use the same word but pronounce it differently, as there isn’t anyone flying around to different universities to give speech lessons (although that would be awesome. Count me in!). That’s also the rationale behind our recent Commentary on GPCR nomenclature (in our new March issue). However, what happens before the first paper gets published? Are pockets of researchers discovering new phenomena and weird effects, and just calling them all different things? Are some of these discoveries so obvious in their terminology that everyone just happens upon the same name? I imagine that it’s a bit like getting glasses, with similar yet subtly different words being thrown around until everyone focuses on a single term.

In contrast to the ‘first publication defines a new name’ idea, what happens if two competing sets of terminology are published at the same time? I think a related problem happens a lot in biology, where the same proteins (or genes) from different species get different names, and then papers have to spend a lot of time explaining that this protein is equivalent to that protein but not that other protein, etc.. But with two terms for the exact same thing, which one wins out? And is there a way to prevent this kind of silliness, or is that just one of the perverse joys of being in science?

Finally, what about more elusive ideas, like how to develop standards for a new field? How do researchers arrive at a meeting of the minds when each scientist may have a different idea of what is appropriate and/or different abilities to meet those standards? This has been a particular difficulty for scientists working on small-molecule screening, as discussed in our March editorial. What other fields are encountering this problem, and how are you/they dealing with it? In the editorial, we suggest a couple of remedies; if those don’t work, I’d suggest you take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Catherine (associate editor, Nature Chemical Biology)