Confusing German Eszett (ẞ; ß) with Greek beta (β) in Biomedical Writing

In scientific writing, there is a need to be as precise as possible. Non-English letters, such as from the Greek alphabet, are frequently used in biomedical research while mathematics uses an even wider range of symbols. In this note, the importance of not confusing the German special character, the Eszett (uppercase ẞ; lowercase ß), with the lowercase Greek beta (β), is emphasized. Three examples are provided within the wider context of science’s erroneous literature and the postpublication peer review movement.

Science writing occasionally requires the use of non-English letters and special characters that can easily be confused, or mistaken. Academics from culturally diverse backgrounds may also have unique letters specific to their language’s alphabet. Ideally, in science writing, there is a desire to represent both accurately.

In the German alphabet, there is a unique special character, the Eszett (uppercase ẞ; lowercase ß) that has specific orthographic uses. Except for German names (e.g., scientists or cities/locations in Germany) or other very specific uses exclusive to the German language, it is rare, if not altogether out of place, to use ẞ/ß in science writing.

In contrast, in Greek, lowercase beta (β), the second letter of the Greek alphabet, is commonly used in biomedical research, as are other Greek letters, e.g., names of compounds (β-carotene) or proteins (amyloid-beta, Aβ), in mathematics, or in statistics. However, the wrong letter might be used, i.e., instead of the Greek β, the German ß might be inserted. When the terms “beta” (or “β”) are searched on PubMed, over 1.1 million results are returned1 suggesting that authors, publishers, and platforms like PubMed allow for use of the alphabetized version of this Greek letter or the Greek letter itself.

German authors whose names are misrepresented with a Greek β are within their right to request an erratum from a journal to accurately represent their name in the scientific literature, or if the Greek β is erroneously represented as the German ẞ/ß, based on the premise that any error can and should be corrected, if possible.2

Some academics (or publishers) may argue that their computers do not have such letters, but most word processors globally have special character functions that allow these letters to be selected. Here, too, it is important to know which letter corresponds to which codes, and these are determined by a universal standard, the Unicode.3 The Unicodes for the Greek β and the German ẞ and ß are U+03B2, U+1E9E, and U+00DF, respectively.

In a word processor, how can one capture the correct German or Greek letter? In Microsoft Word for Windows, especially in later versions, there is an input method editor pad that shows the Unicode for non-English letters and special characters. For example, as indicated above, the Unicode for the Greek β is U+03B2, uppercase German ẞ is U+1E9E, and lowercase ß is U+00DF. To find these letters in Word, simply add the Unicode where desired in the document, place the mouse cursor after the Unicode,3 and then press Alt+x simultaneously. The desired letter should appear.

Three examples in which the Greek β and German ẞ/ß have been mixed and/or confused, and thus also introducing errors into PubMed, or other databases can be found in Muche et al.,4 Pourageaud et al.,5 and Camastra et al.6 The greater risk is that these errors will be propagated by scientists who might cite these studies, but who may be unaware of this fine-scale error. The extent of this type of error in the biomedical literature is currently unknown and a detailed bibliometric analysis is warranted.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflicts of interest relevant to this topic.

References and Links 

  2. Teixeira da Silva JA. An error is an error… is an erratum: the ethics of not correcting errors in the science literature. Publishing Res Quart 2016;32(3):220–226.
  4. Muche A, Arendt T, Schliebs R. Oxidative stress affects processing of amyloid precursor protein in vascular endothelial cells. PLoS ONE 2017;12(6):e0178127.
  5. Pourageaud F, Leblais V, Bellance N, Marthan R, Muller B. Role of β2-adrenoceptors (ß-AR), but not ß1-, β3-AR and endothelial nitric oxide, in β-AR-mediated relaxation of rat intrapulmonary artery. Naunyn-Schmiedebergs Arch Pharmacol 2005;372(1):14–23.
  6. Camastra S, Vitali A, Anselmino M, Gastaldelli A, Bellini R, Berta R, Severi I, Baldi S, Astiarraga B, Barbatelli G, et al. Muscle and adipose tissue morphology, insulin sensitivity and beta-cell function in diabetic and nondiabetic obese patients: effects of bariatric surgery. Sci Rep 2017;7(1):


Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva is an independent researcher in Kagawa-ken, Japan.