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The Case for Writing Emojis Into Scientific Studies

Good news for instagram-loving millennials. Science is finally catching up.

Five billion emojis are sent each day on Facebook Messenger, and half of all comments on Instagram include an emoji. Yet, as far as we know, only one scientific study thus far has written emojis into its abstract. True, this may represent the seriousness and professionalism crucial to scientific discovery. But it may also indicate that science has forgotten how to talk to future innovators. If our children—the scientists of the future—communicate using emoji, there’s a case to be made for the scientists of the present learning how to speak their language. Vikas O’Reilly-Shah and colleagues at Emory School of Medicine are just the people to make that case.

Defined by the authors as “single character images conveying stylized facial expressions, objects, animals, flags/signs, weather patterns, and activities”, emojis could help authors convey emotions otherwise lost within boring blocks of text.

“Emoji represent an opportunity for the medical and scientific community to augment how scientific findings are described and discussed,” O’Reilly-Shah writes in a new study on the subject, published in the British Medical Journal’s legendarily whimsical Christmas Edition. (Previous editions have shown that Peppa Pig promotes medical malpractice, orthopedic surgeons are smarter than anesthesiologists, and chocolates last barely 12 minutes in hospital wards.) O’Reilly-Shah make a convincing case for the inclusion of emojis within scientific texts by using the images to pull readers into what might otherwise be a hard-to-digest entry. Not only do emoji make texts easier to digest at speed, they make them more accessible to early STEM learners. As the authors put it:

Speaking of boring text, emojis might enliven even the driest statistical reporting. The American Psychological Association, for instance, uses a system of letters and asterisks to denote statistical significance—higher p values, which indicate better statistical significance, garner more asterisks. Here’s how O’Reilly-Shah reimagines it:

The authors caution that emoji artwork is not yet standardized, so studies published online may display an unintended variety of emotions depending upon the device in use. There is also the matter of local custom. The victory hand emoji would be viewed as a token of peace in the United States. Not so in Australia.

Nonetheless, the possibilities are both amusing and important to consider. There was a time when it would have been unthinkable for Nature Medicine to be on Twitter, or for top scientists to use Instagram. When science adapts, a new generation engages with it. Emojis may represent the next step toward making science accessible.

For instance, it’s difficult if not impossible to encourage your child to hunker down and read a scientific study. How much easier would it be, if the abstract was written out in emojis? “Imagine a case report of a young child admitted by ambulance to an emergency department, in whom a rare disease is uncovered after unrevealing diagnostic studies and failed attempts at conventional treatment,” the authors write. “She undergoes a surgical procedure, is discharged home, and makes a full recovery. Such an abstract could be reimagined as follows:

“Although logistical concerns remain,” the authors write. “We look forward to the day when entire papers are cogently written using concise sets of emoji to convey new results.”