Tuesday, March 21, 2006


FDA's Naming Police

I've often wondered by drug names seem so strange. A March 17 2006 Wall Street Journal article titled "When a Drug Maker Creates a New Pill, Uncle Sam Vets Name" describes a not-very-transparent process by the US government's Food and Drug Administration for reviewing proposed drug names. The FDA rejects names that are too orthographically or phonologically similar to existing drug names (seems reasonable) but also rejects names that are semantically suggestive because they don't want people to think that a drug will do more than it really does. So for example, "Bonviva" is "bon" + "viva" ("good" + "life") and that promised more than a certain osteoporosis drug can deliver, so it ended up as "Boniva." This seems a little misguided to me and also seems pretty arbitrary, and given how much money the drug firms must spend in market research to test drive names like "Bonviva" it almost seems punitive to reject them.

Anyone who works with information models knows how difficult it is to create good names for things and my UC Berkeley course syllabi for Information Organization and Retrieval" and Document Engineering and Information Architecture" include lots of readings and case studies that rigorously demonstrate that. My favorite is a paper called What's in a name" that contains wonderfully deadpan advice about choosing good names:

If one person thinks of a “shipping container” as being a cardboard box and another person thinks of a “shipping container” as being a semi-trailer, some interesting conversations regarding capacity can occur.

So I think it would be great service to our field if the FDA were to publish its "name design rules" or provide access to its name testing software. But I suspect that the rules and software are a little shaky and the FDA is reluctant to make them more transparent.

-Bob Glushko

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