Study names with an attitude – more important than you might think

Ironman, T-rex, Star-Trek. Popcorn, Proper, Scout. Nope, these are neither fantasy films nor dog names. They’re the names of ongoing cancer studies in Sweden.

A patient, let’s call him Patrick (because that’s his name), approached the paper with a story. He and his doctor had been discussing the possibility of participating in clinical trials to test new, not yet approved treatments for his persistent cancer.

“There were a few studies that I might be able to participate in. One of them was called Agent 007. Cool name, I thought. Then there was another one called Monkey. Less cool name. Guess which one the doctor wanted to get me into?”

The name is probably not the most important factor when choosing a study to participate in, but it is not totally unimportant, Patrick feels.

“As a layperson, you don’t have much insight into which study is the best, but you do know which is the coolest name. Relevant when you are dying, right? Haha. But still.”

Patrick suggested that we should examine whether and how the names of clinical studies affect patients’ willingness to participate.

A brief bit of Googling provides at least part of an answer – from an article in the New England Journal of Medicine from 2006.

In the article, researchers at the University of Toronto published a study of 173 randomly selected studies, 59 of which were named with an acronym - that is, an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of several words and often recognisable as a pronounceable word, rather than, say, simply a dry combination of letters and numbers.

The results were striking.

Studies named using an acronym, often a snappy one with an attitude, recruited five times as many patients as studies without an acronym. They were also four times more likely to be sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry.

The names were not associated with more favourable results though. Nevertheless, the studies with acronym names were found to be cited twice as often by other researchers.

“Although other explanations are possible (skilled people can generate clever acronyms, as well as important research), this supports the hypothesis that randomised trial named with an acronym can increase citation rates,” the researchers write in the article.

The scientific community has now embraced this practice on a large scale, and more or less imaginative study names are more the norm than the exception. Some examples are shown in the adjacent fact box. “Cool” or not, it’s all in the eye of the beholder, right?

A few favourite study names:

Batman (Bipolar Androgen Therapy for Men with Androgen ablation Naïve prostate cancer)

Crash (Corticosteroid Randomisation After Significant Head injury)

Cool (Cardiovascular thrombolytic to Open Occluded Lines)

BBC-One (British Bifurcation Coronary study: Old, New and Evolving strategies)

Cadillac (Controlled Abciximab and Device Investigation to Lower Late Angioplasty Complications)

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