Thoughts of a Subject Matter Expert’s (SME) Deskmate

I was doing some research for an article I was writing about post-exercise performance and metabolism. The study under review was comparing results between a fasted and fed pre-exercise state. The abstract of the research article I was reading (link) mentioned the acronym “FFA” but did not explain what it meant. In my training as a technical writer, it is certainly “against the rules” to use an acronym before first spelling it out. When you play by the rules, the acronym makes its first appearance only in parenthesis. At least, this is what I was taught.

What does one do when they are not familiar with an acronym? They Google it, of course. But when I Googled “FFA” it should come as no surprise that my first ten Google search results were articles about Future Farmers of America. I knew that was not the FFA I was looking for (see image). Immediately aware that I would to dig through many layers of Google search results before identifying the “true” FFA, I finally remembered that my very own desk mate actually got her PhD in foods and nutrition and her Master’s in exercise physiology.

“Kristine, what would you think ‘FFA’ stands for in the context of post-exercise metabolism?”

Without hesitation, Kristine answers, “free fatty acids.”

Now, I have been writing about health and nutrition professionally for almost four years – many times about the importance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (check it out), but even I could not come up with the words “free fatty acids” when I came across an unfamiliar acronym. If I had to seek consultation to identify the words, how would a true lay-person with no direct access to PhDs have figured it out?

For those who care at all about scientifically literacy, we know that it is rare for a lay-person to pick up and attempt to read an academic article. There are also some who would argue (including me, depending on my mood) that a lay-person should not attempt to read an academic article, with the concern that the piece – packed with jargon and laden with passive language – would only confuse and dishearten the reader. However, for those who may be on the side of encouraging lay interaction with scientific academia, inclusion of the “FFA” acronym is an issue. What are we going to do about it?

I have some thoughts…



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