The way people write, along with the way people speak, is constantly evolving. Although at times there may be debate over the degree to which language should be reined in to consider of the sensitivities of various groups, a consensus has emerged in recent decades that the language we use in communicating with the public should be inclusive and free of bias.
When submitting a paper for publication, it’s important to be aware of the kinds of expressions that can be perceived as biased to improve your paper’s chances of publication and suitability for a global audience. In the same way that we check our papers for grammar, spelling and readability, we should be also ensure that the language we use is inclusive to all who may read it. As writers, we want to hold readers’ attention so that they will want to read our paper in its entirety.
Using language that may offend some readers may diminish your credibility and keep people from reading your research.
To do this, you must make sure your writing is free of implied judgments based on race or ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or age. For those of us who live in highly homogeneous societies or those with more traditional gender roles, it may be a little harder to pick up on biased-sounding expressions in our writing.
Try putting yourself in others’ shoes: reading your paper, would you feel offended or excluded if your group was substituted for the one you are discussing? What if you were a member of the group being discussed? If so, changes are in order.
Writing without prejudice or bias
Overtly sexist or racist language is rare in scientific documents. Typically biased expression appears in subtle ways that the author may not even be aware of.
Writing that excludes some groups in favor of others, or treats ethnic/racial groups as unequal creates the perception that the writer is prejudiced. Similarly, writing that presents men and women as unequal, or excludes one or the other without reason will be perceived as sexist.
Avoiding sexist language
Sexism is more common in scientific writing than one might think, although it is often unintentional and unconscious.
A few examples of sexist expressions:
- Enterprising men and creative women have recently shown interest in home-based businesses.(note that different terminology is used for the genders, suggesting a bias)
- Doctors need more free time to spend with their wives and children.
The fact that English has no gender-neutral singular pronoun makes it hard to avoid sexist language. Here are some alternatives that may help.
1. Using plural constructions
Writing your sentence in the plural may let you avoid using third-person singular pronouns. However, English grammar rules should still be followed.
- Biased: A scientist should carefully document his experiments.
- Grammatically incorrect: Every scientist should document their experiments.
- Better: Scientists should document their experiments.
2. Gender-neutral titles
There are often good alternatives to gendered titles.
- Not inclusive: policeman; chairman; stewardess
- Better: police officer; chairperson, flight attendant
3. When referring to people generically, use gender-neutral terms
- Not inclusive: man; mankind; manpower
- Better: humanity; humankind; staffing
4. Using articles in place of the third person singular possessive
S/he, his/her, and he/she are awkward and diminish readability. One way to avoid this is to use neutral expressions in place of the possessive form.
- Biased: The housekeeper should return her uniform by Wednesday.
- Better: The housekeeper should return the uniform by Wednesday. OR Ask the housekeeper to return the uniform by Wednesday.
- Awkward: Each student must check that s/he brings in his/her permission slip.
- Better but still awkward: Each student must bring in his or her permission slip.
- Best: Each student must bring in a permission slip.
Now for some more subtle details of inclusive writing.
Only mention differences that are relevant and use inclusive language
It’s important to choose clear, accurate, unbiased words when talking about a person or people. Using man/mankind to refer to all human beings is less accurate than people or men and women. It may also offend readers because it presumes everyone is male unless otherwise stated. Likewise, using the generic masculine to refer to all people implies the same presumption.
To avoid the appearance of bias, think about whether a difference is relevant before mentioning it. If a person’s race/ethnicity, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disabled status is not relevant to the manuscript topic or the data you’re discussing, it probably shouldn’t be mentioned.
Avoid group labels
Study participants should not be deprived of their status as individual human beings. It’s usually better to refer to elderly people, rather than the elderly. Avoid pejorative expressions such as the psychotics (or the psychotic group) and instead use patients with psychoses.
By the same token, people should not be labeled by their disabilities. Using the term normal may stigmatize those with differences and imply they are abnormal, (e.g. the transgendered group vs. normal adolescents). Neutral expressions like “paraplegic patients who use a wheelchair” are preferable to emotional expressions like “paralysis victims confined to a wheelchair.”
Maintain natural style
Political correctness, or language sensitivity taken to extremes, has become a hot-button issue in recent decades. Sometimes in the attempt to be inclusive and avoid the appearance of bias, writers will use terms that are actually less descriptive and more jarring because they are politically loaded or unnatural, which may even serve to accentuate the issue you are trying to avoid. An example of this might be “differently abled” in place of people with disabilities.
Although well-intentioned, it tells us nothing about the persons being discussed because ultimately everyone is differently abled. These types of experiments in making English less biased have tended not to be adopted over the long term.
We suggest a common-sense approach, using inclusive and gender-neutral expression appropriately, and being sensitive to those who might feel hurt or excluded. At the same time, however, avoid use of made-up words or unnatural expressions that might actually distract from what’s actually important – your research.
- Biased: Sickle cell disease occurs mostly in blacks.
- Better: Sickle cell disease is most common in those of sub-Saharan ancestry.
- Biased: A good dentist always cleans his instruments between patients.
- Better: A good dentist’s instruments are always kept clean.
- Biased: One female stricken with lupus declined to answer the survey.
- Better: One woman with lupus declined to answer the survey.
- Better: One female lupus patient declined to answer the survey.
- Biased: All the diabetics in the treatment group were overweight.
- Better: All the patients in the diabetes group were overweight.
See Purdue’s Online Writing Lab for more useful information from the APA Manual about reducing bias in language.
Language quality is among the top reasons for being rejected by a journal. To ensure the language in your manuscript is publication-ready you should have a native-English-speaking expert in your field edit for grammar, clarity, and accuracy of scientific expression.