Health and science indexing tips and hints—Mary Russell (ISC conference 2014)

Mary Russell, representative from the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers, gave us a glimpse into her bag of tricks for indexing health and science texts.

“If you wear an editor’s hat,” she warned, “you’ll have to get comfortable sitting on your hands.” The terminology in health and science can be quite daunting, with eponyms, an idiosyncratic mix of British and American spelling, chemical names, drug names, botanical names, and so on. Medicine and science are full of alternative names, abbreviations, and precise distinctions between categories of varying complexity. You’ll have to use more cross-references and know your audience so that you can guide your readers to the terms preferred in the text.

Eponyms—diseases or body parts named after a person or place—are common in medicine and can be tricky because punctuation and possession can be lost. (Should it be “Braxton Hicks contractions” or “Braxton-Hicks contractions”?) Double-check with an authoritative source to get these right.

The use of British versus American spellings may also seem inconsistent; a book published in the U.S. may use British spelling because that’s what the profession uses. “Follow the profession,” said Russell, “not necessarily the nationality of your audience.”

Chemicals can have many alternative names—for example, vinegar can be known as a dilute solution of acetic acid, ethanoic acid, glacial acetic acid, among other names. If you have room in your index, offer your readers the most common of these as multiple access points.

Drug names “can get frightfully complicated,” said Russell. “Drug names really test your typing, because they simply do not make sense.” Drugs have a class name, a drug group, a drug name, and a trade name. It’s important to provide as many of these as possible in the index, because people may be looking up drug names and side effects in a crisis situation, and your index is the entry point.

For scientific names, classification to the level of genus and species is usually all that’s needed. Plant names are very structured, but common names and cultivars can add confusion. Although sometimes you may see zoological names inverted (species, genus), don’t do that with botanical names.


If you’re working in health and science indexing, you can turn to several different types of resources to guide you and help you understand terminology and conventions.

Dictionaries and thesauri

Specialized subject dictionaries are great resources. Sometimes they’re available as an app, which may be cheaper to buy than the print edition—or you can get a short-term subscription for your project.

For medicine, refer to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s medical subject headings (MeSH). MeSH terms can clarify the hierarchy of terms, alert you to alternative terms, help with alternative spellings, help with politically correct terms, and clarify the use of abbreviations.

Style guides

Russell recommended the following style guides:

Name authorities and taxonomies

Many scientific areas have authorities that can be consulted online:


Get to know indexers who also work in science and medicine, and talk to subject experts, perhaps the work’s author or editor, to get a handle on the terminology that the audience is likely to look for.

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