As we and our language evolve, authors of scientific publications need to make informed and sensitive choices about writing about such terms as age, disability, disease, ethnicity, gender, race and sex, among others. Inclusive and bias-free language in a scientific setting is a must to report the findings and describe people involved respectfully. It is essential when writing about age, disability and diseases, race and ethnicity and sex and gender to be specific and respectful. Otherwise, reporting findings may be imprecise, offensive or dehumanising. Scientific authors should only refer to these categories carefully and when scientifically relevant.
What are the golden rules of inclusive and bias-free language in scientific writing?
Scientific writing may appear dry and is more fact-oriented than other literatures. Still, it must remain bias-free, inclusive and respectful. When writing about age, disability and diseases, race and ethnicity and sex and gender, my general advice comes down to this principle: be precise and be respectful.
Consider working with a copyeditor skilled at diagnosing discriminatory language and imprecise phrasing. I often work with academic writers publishing books and journal articles. Here are some of my notes passed on to authors who needed help with making their manuscripts bias-free while retaining the objectivity of the research:
- Do not use adjectives as nouns to avoid sounding demeaning or simply incorrect. For instance, use ‘female participants’ not ‘females,’ ‘the patients in the diabetes group,’ not ‘the diabetics.’
- Be as specific as possible and avoid umbrella terms. For instance, choose ‘Venezuelans’ rather than ‘Hispanics.’
- Use terms that focus on people rather than those categorising them. For instance, you write about ‘people who use wheelchairs’ instead of ‘disabled people.’
- Avoid negatively charged language, derogatory terms or those implying inferiority/superiority. For instance, replace ‘low class’ with ‘low socioeconomic status’ and use ‘diagnosed with bipolar disorder’ rather than ‘suffers from bipolar disorder.’
In the following sections, I expand on how scientific authors can make their manuscripts bias-free and inclusive when reporting findings relevant to age, disability, disease, ethnicity, gender, race and sex.
How to write about age using inclusive and bias-free language in scientific writing?
The terms ‘elderly’ (as a noun) and ‘old’ became associated with weakness and signify an ageist language. ‘Older persons,’ ‘retired persons’ or ‘adults over the age of 65’ are not offensive and could be used instead.
How to write about disability and disease using inclusive and bias-free language in scientific writing?
Language describing people with disabilities or people with health conditions should be respectful and not demeaning. For instance, victimising terms such as ‘suffers from’ or ‘afflicted with’ should be replaced with ‘diagnosed with’ or ‘affected by.’ Another example I have noticed is a tendency to dehumanise patients by referring to them as medical ‘cases.’ ‘Schizophrenic cases’ are inappropriate; replace them with ‘patients with schizophrenia.’ This way, you refer back to people-centred language rather than focus on the condition or diagnosis.
Although rare in scientific writing, metaphors referring to disabilities, such as ‘blind luck’ or ‘decision paralysis,’ stigmatise people and have no place in inclusive and unbiased reporting. Moreover, do not use insensitive or simply offensive adjectives like ‘crazy,’ ‘crippled,’ ‘handicapped,’ or ‘normal,’ ‘healthy’ and ‘able-bodied’ when referring to people not living with disabilities or diseases.
Finally, only use ‘patients’ in clinical or healthcare-related settings; outside these contexts, they are ‘people’ or ‘individuals.’
How to write about race and identity using inclusive and bias-free language in scientific writing?
While race is conceptualised by physical traits, it is not possible to establish or define it through genetic tests. Thus, ‘race’ becomes increasingly replaced with‘ethnicity’ in scientific writing because it may appear to be a narrow or outdated ‘category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits.’ ‘Ethnicity’ or ‘ancestry,’ as concepts based on broader cultural and geographical identity and expression, are more appropriate.
Similarly, ‘minority’ phases out since it may imply the inferiority of the group it aims to describe. Furthermore, it often does not refer to a quantitative minority. ‘Historically marginalised populations’ could work as a more sensitive alternative.
How to write about sex and gender using inclusive and bias-free language in scientific writing?
‘Gender’ and ‘sex’ are not synonyms and should not be used interchangeably. According to WHO, ‘sex’ refers to the biological and physiological characteristics of an individual, such as reproductive organs, chromosomes or hormones. ‘Gender’ is socially constructed and refers to one’s personal identity.
Furthermore, when describing the participants, use gender-neutral pronouns (or gender-inclusive pronouns). This involves replacing ‘she’ or ‘he’ with the increasingly more popular singular ‘they.’ In addition, there are also many other gender-inclusive pronouns in use. Using gender-neutral language will cut out any risk of bias or mistakes and ensure including participants who identify as non-binary.
Inclusive and bias-free language in scientific writing is a must because it increases precision of the scientific findings and removes the opportunities for perpetuating prejudicial beliefs or demeaning attitudes. In my post written in celebration of International Plain Language Day, I concluded with a call for a language clear for all. Building on that, this week, I wish for language that is respectful to all.
You can contact me for a free sample edit to ensure your text is written in accurate and bias-free language (and remember to use my early bird discount!). If you want to hear more from me, including self-editing and writing tips, follow me on Mastodon, Twitter and LinkedIn or join my newsletter.