Should a researcher try her best to avoid using existing abbreviations (such as IEEE, WHO, DNA, ANOVA, BMI, CERN, NASA, UNESCO, OPCW, NHS, CDC ...) that are (well-)known in her fields, when creating abbreviations for new concepts (methods, substances, studies ...) in the same field?

Or is it OK if the abbreviation for the new concept is just defined where it is used (e.g., in a publication)?

  • This is not good practice : global search algorithms will find "results" that are not relevant... engineers have to use letters for things and use an upper case letter with descriptive subscripts to focus the meaning ie Cf (coefficient of friction), Cd (coefficient of drag), Cl (coefficient of lift, could be confused with the symbol for chlorine, but these are subscripts not lower case... – Solar Mike Jan 29 '19 at 7:34
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    You should avoid using abbreviations entirely. Give your new concept a mnemonic name. – JeffE Jan 29 '19 at 8:50
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    "You should avoid using abbreviations entirely." "– JeffE". *cough* – David Richerby Jan 29 '19 at 10:34
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    @DavidRicherby I'm going to assume Jeff has taken his own advice, and from now on will pronounce that name in my head as "jeffy" rather than Jeff E. There's also a mod over at Biology and Psych/Neuro AliceD, who is indeed not Alice D. but intended to be read as an entire phrase. – Bryan Krause Jan 29 '19 at 16:32

Yes, you should avoid using well-established acronyms to mean something else. I would especially avoid those like the ones you present as examples that are likely more recognizable as the acronym than what the acronym stands for: they are effectively words by themselves with a specific meaning.


Yes. But then again, no. Depends. If you can easily avoid it, sure - avoid it. It will only cause confusion in the long run. But this confusion is dependent of the previous acronym being relevant (as opposed to known) in that specific field. So if you are creating a new modular iterating algorithm (stupid example, but you catch my drift), and your last name is Brown, it is OK to call it the Brown Modular Iterator (BMI). No one, in context, will think this is the Body Mass Index.

A slightly different example of when it is OK (not, mind you, optimal) to use an existing acronym which can actually cause confusion, is when there are specific naming conventions. This is how we have the American Sociological Association (ASA), the American Statistical Association (ASA), and the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) - with most societies holding the convention of country_societyname_association, and medical societies to the country_societyof_societyname.

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    On the other hand, it's going to be really hard to Google for BMI because Google will be convinced you mean body mass index. So, really, re-using existing common abbreviations seems like a pretty bad idea. – David Richerby Jan 29 '19 at 10:32
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    @DavidRicherby To be fair, Google tends to do well if you add context clues, at least when there's little overlap between the fields. E.g. "BMI airport" finds the airport just fine, but "BMI burger" probably won't find the Big Mac Index. – Anyon Jan 29 '19 at 13:35
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    @Anyon Actually, “BMI burger” (without the quotes) in a Google search gave me the Big Mac Index as the third search result. (The first link was to a burger event at Broadcast Music Inc. in Nashville, and the second link was about the Body Mass Index. YMMV since Google’s results are personalized, but it seems to do a decent job, even with overloaded abbreviations.) – Mitchell Spector Jan 29 '19 at 16:26
  • OP specified that are (well-)known in their fields which I suppose is a bit grammatically ambiguous but I took to mean "their" field to relate to the researcher, rather than the acronyms. The Brown Modular Iterator would probably not be used in the same field as the Body Mass Index, but perhaps should be avoided since BMI is used as such a popularly known acronym, alongside others like NASA. I think the ASA examples are a better counter example. Working as a statistician in an anesthesiology department has me in a bit of a bind personally, however... – Bryan Krause Jan 29 '19 at 16:30

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