Politically correct scientific writing
In the first part of this series, we discussed commonly confused words in scientific writing. In this part, we cover words that weigh heavy when used incorrectly. A scientific manuscript should be clear, objective, and bias-free. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that authors are aware of the nuances of words related to gender, race, ethnicity, etc.
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Politically correct scientific writing
A quick guide to scientific writing
Politically correct scientific writing
You have already met Harold.
HAROLD HAS A NEW DOUBT
I have heard that my colleagues’ papers were severely
criticized because their writing seemed to indicate bias.
I would not want to be accused of being biased or insensitive.
I wonder, Dr. Eddy, if you could help me here.
He found Dr. Eddy’s tips on commonly confused words in scientific writing
quite helpful. But he seems to have more questions on words related to
gender, ethnicity, etc.
Harold, you’re right!
Scientific research should be accurate, objective, and bias-free, so it is
critical that you write sensitively.
The unintentional misuse of some words related to race, gender, etc.,
could introduce a bias or lead your readers or reviewers to believe
that you support a specific perspective or stereotype.
Let us look at some examples to understand this better.
SENSITIVITY IN SCIENTIFIC WRITING
CHOOSE THE RIGHT WORDS WHEN WRITING ABOUT
1. Sex or gender
4. Age3. Race or ethnicity
2. Participants of studies or experiments
5. Disability 6. Sexual orientation
Authors often use the following incorrectly:
• Gender-specific pronouns (he/she)
• Nouns (woman/female, man/male)
Sex – biological make up of a person
Gender – social/behavioral role
associated with a particular sex
Sex | Gender
Avoiding gender bias
• If your study makes a distinction between sex and gender, mention
this in the study design.
• Avoid misleading generalizations. Not all doctors are men, not all nurses
are women; mankind does not imply humankind.
• When referring to both men and women, use they instead of the
gendered pronoun he or she.
• Rephrase if required.
Avoid – A teacher expects his students to behave.
Better – Teachers expect their students to behave.
Used in an abstract sense:
“a case of hepatitis”
Includes everything about
the event – hepatitis
Used in the concrete sense:
“a patient suffering from
Includes more information
(gender, age, dietary habits)
• Subject is typically used to refer to participants of studies or experiments.
• Some journals consider the use of subject derogatory.
• Check the journal’s author instructions to use the right word.
• Consult manuals such as the AMA style guide for more help.
Case | Patient | Subject
Indicates heritage or
Indicates cultural behaviors and
traditions that are learnt or cultivated
3. Race | Ethnicity
• Capitalize races and ethnic groups – they are proper nouns (African-American).
• Specify countries of origin wherever possible (Korean, Japanese, Indian for Asian).
• Use Asian rather than Oriental.
• Use African-American only for U.S. citizens.
• Both Black and African-American are acceptable.
• Both American Indian and Native American are acceptable.
• Non-White is incorrect; specify all races not included under White.
Always specify age ranges covered by your study.
We studied the dietary habits of 1200 school going children.
We studied the dietary habits of 1200 children between ages 10 and 12.
Age could be a critical factor in some studies. Referring to individuals from
certain age groups using general words may be inaccurate.
• Use men and/or women for
individuals aged 18 years and older.
• In some contexts, using the word
elderly by itself is not acceptable as it
considered derogatory. Older
persons or elderly people.
Be careful not to sound insensitive when writing about disabilities.
Use “people-first language” –
the individual is more
important that the disability.
People with amnesia
Avoid skewed groupings.
Normal vs. Disabled
People without disability
People with disability
Avoid these words:
cripple, victim, deformed, retarded, confined, suffer, afflicted with
quadriplegic victim confined to a wheelchair
person with quadriplegia who uses a wheelchair
Only referring to someone as gay
6. Sexual orientation
• Sexual orientation is different from sexual behavior – some people
engage in sexual activity with same-sex partners but do not consider
themselves gay or lesbian.
• Refer to your journal’s submission guidelines or to style manuals (APA,
CMS, etc.) for more detailed instructions on how sexual orientation should
DID THESE TIPS HELP?
Yes! I had no idea about the finer differences in meaning.
I realize that I have made many mistakes in the past when
writing about these topics.
Thanks, Dr. Eddy! I shall ensure my writing is not biased,
insensitive, or stereotypical.
Harold, we hope these tips helped you understand the importance of words
related to gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, etc.
Good luck, Harold!
Have more questions on scientific writing
or the publication process?
Ask our publication expert Dr. Eddy!
For more resources on manuscript preparation, submission, and publication, visit
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