I’m guessing that some researcher wondered aloud in the cafeteria, “How come medical researchers don’t talk about the evolution of antibiotic resistance? I mean sure, they talk about it, but they don’t call it evolution.”
in PLoS Biology attempts to measure this observation.
In a nutshell, they found that biology journals say that antibiotic resistance “evolves”, whereas medical journals say that it “emerges” or “arises”.
Although we deliberately read equal numbers of articles in the two types of journals, we actually found that by far the majority of publications on the evolution of antibiotic resistance are in the medical field, and not in academic evolutionary biology or genetics journals. The evolution of antibiotic resistance, while critically important from a medical viewpoint, is no longer in and of itself a novel finding in evolutionary biology.
The authors note that there doesn’t seem to be any conscious effort to avoid the word “evolution” in medical journals. However, they also note that this has an effect on public perception:
Our results showed that the proportion of times the word “evolution” was used in a popular article was highly correlated with how often it was used in the original scientific paper to which the popular article referred (Figure 2). This clearly shows that the public is more likely to be exposed to the idea of evolution and its real-world consequences if the word “evolution” is also being used in the technical literature.
They also suggest that researchers tend to avoid words like “evolution” in NSF grant proposals, the implication being that the Bush administration would prefer that evolution not be discussed.
Unfortunately, this study only used a small sample size (30 papers). But still, if its conclusions are confirmed, it would suggest that medical researchers ought to use the word “evolution” more often, so that it would percolate through popular science reporting, and into the public consciousness.