Sensitivity in scientific writing

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Sensitivity in scientific writing

Scientific writing is all about being accurate, brief, and objective, and as editors or writers, we should reduce the bias that creeps in from the use of insensitive language and flawed terminology. Remember that writing shapes thought, so use inclusive language when writing about the following subjects.

1. Disability: Use "people-first" language - emphasize the person and not the disability by placing the person-noun before the condition (for example, people with amnesia instead of amnesiacs, or people with disabilities instead of the disabled).

Avoid emotionally charged or judgmental words such as cripple, victim, deformed, retarded, confined, suffer, and afflicted with (for example, avoid quadriplegic victim confined to a wheelchair and use person with quadriplegia who uses a wheelchair instead). Also, do not use skewed groupings such as Normal vs. Disabled.

2. Sex/gender: Sex refers to the biological make-up of a person (male/female), whereas gender refers to the social or behavioral role associated with a particular sex (man/woman), and this distinction should be made if required by the research study design. Gender terms such as he or men should not be used if actually referring to both men and women (not all nurses are women and not all doctors men, and only approximately 50% of humankind is mankind!).

A sexist bias introduced by gendered pronouns such as he can be avoided by (1) using plural nouns or pronouns ( "As an engineering student, he..." to "As engineering students, they..."), (2) rephrasing ( "When an intern works with patients, she gains experience" to "Working with patients lends experience to interns"), or (3) replacing the pronoun with an  article or noun (e.g., "In the laboratory, he should..." to "In the laboratory, the technician should...").

3. Race: Race can be a predisposing factor for certain medical conditions, so accurate race and ethnic designations should be made if warranted and terms that may be perceived as negative avoided. Race indicates the heritage or biological features one is born with, and ethnicity the cultural traditions and behaviors that are learnt.

Race and ethnic groups are proper nouns and should be capitalized. Both African-American (only for US citizens of African descent) and Black are acceptable; Asian has replaced Oriental; and both American Indian and Native American are acceptable. If possible, specify the countries of origin (for example, Korean, Japanese, or Indian for Asian). Non-White is an incorrect term; instead, specify all races not included under the category White

4. Age: In pediatric studies, age-groups such as infants, children, adolescents, and young adults are used, but age ranges vary by study and should be specified. Men and women are used for individuals 18 years and older. Elderly is not acceptable as a noun; use older persons or elderly people.

5. Sexual orientation: Sexual orientation is preferred to sexual preference in scientific reporting. Use lesbians and gay men instead of homosexuals, and include gender if not clear from context (for example, gay men and not just gay). Differentiate sexual behavior from sexual orientation, as some individuals engage in sexual activity with same-sex partners, but do not consider themselves gay or lesbian.

You can also read this article, which will guide you in writing a better research paper.  

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Published on: Feb 26, 2014

PhD, ELS, a science communicator who helps researchers by putting her language skills and subject area knowledge to use.
See more from Dr. Vani J. Shanker


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