Nontechnical use of technical terms

Nontechnical use of technical terms

Technical terms are becoming more and more frequent in medical research reports, especially terms developed for use in randomised trials. Without methodological insights, it is becoming increasingly harder to distinguish between observational and experimental studies (1). Parts of this usage probably reflect spin but not all.

For example, terms such as “correlation”, “endpoint”, and “adverse event” are used more or less indiscriminately without adherence to their proper definitions, and technical terms usually have very clear definitions. For example, an adverse event refers to any untoward medical occurrence in a patient during a trial. The event does not need to be causally related to the treatment. An endpoint refers to a parameter, not to a variable, and a correlation is about a linear relationship, not a general association. For example, the variables x and y, where x = {-3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3} and y = x² are completely related but not correlated. The correlation coefficient is 0.

The best way to avoid misunderstanding technical terms is to use their proper technical definition. The ICMJE (2) therefore recommends avoiding nontechnical uses of technical terms. Check your terminology.


1. Koletsi D, Pandis N, Polychronopoulou A, Eliades T. What’s in a title? An assessment of whether randomized controlled trial in the title means that it is one. Am J Dentofacial Orthop 2012:141:679-685.

2. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals, May 25 2021. Available from: