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Using language to empower

6 April 2022 | 5 min read

By Katie Eve, Kate Wilson

Rose, quill and ink on desk

How authors can use language to promote the safety and status of all people

Why Shakespeare was wrong

What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.

― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Not to contradict William Shakespeare, one of the world’s greatest writers, but, at least in this regard, he was wrong. It does matter how we refer to people. Even Shakespeare would agree that words hold power: the words used to describe us embed themselves in our psyche and shape how we regard ourselves, and how others regard us.

Put yourselves in the shoes of someone from a marginalized group who lives in a society which uses language peppered with everyday phrases and terms rooted in historical ableism, racism, and sexism. Each micro-aggression accumulates, and immersed in this world, the message to individuals from these marginalized groups is clear: “you are not worthy, you are not welcome.”  An awareness of the power of our words leads us to self-check and choose language more mindfully, challenging rather than reinforcing power structures. Inclusive language is about communicating in a way that values and empowers all members of your audience. And this is not only relevant for authors working in health, medical and social sciences – language is relevant to all scientific discourse.

Guidance for authors

Elsevier provides guidance on the use of inclusive language in its author instructions, available in each journal’s guide for authors, asking authors to pay attention to potential bias, stereotype, and slang used in their papers, to use gender neutrality, and to avoid descriptions that refer to personal attributes such as age, gender, race, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, disability, or health condition unless they are relevant and valid.

We continue to evolve our guides for authors. For example, in journals where computing language is used, we encourage and help authors to replace offensive or exclusionary terms, such as “master/slave” and “blacklist/whitelist” with “primary/secondary” and “blocklist/allowlist.” While we acknowledge that computing language refers to non-human elements such as databases, drives, and so on, these terms are considered problematic as they can invoke racial history. In addition, the recommended alternatives are clearer and more specific.

An obvious exception applies for critical work exploring problematic language or behaviours in which it may be necessary to use terminology, that would otherwise be unacceptable, in order to clearly relay the concepts being explored.

Further considerations

Excellent and extensive guidelines already exist, such as the American Psychological Association (APA) style guide on bias-free-language and the AMA Manual of Style inclusive language chapter. We don’t aim to replicate such resources here in this short article; rather, we highlight a few general pointers and encourage you seek detailed guidance, depending on your field and research topics.

Describe don’t define

You should mention characteristics like gender, sexual orientation, racial group, or disability only when it is relevant to the research you report on. At the same time, you should be mindful of intersectionality and the set of characteristics individuals have that lead to unique world experiences. When including characteristics, use specific terms and use adjective forms to describe, such as Black participants or White patients, rather than noun forms which define. When listing participants’ socio-economic status or age, use income or ranges rather than broad categories or general labels, which often include pejorative terms.

Challenge (even established) terminology routed in racism, ableism, sexism

Avoid terms that imply restrictions, or that can be regarded as slurs. Bahar Mehmani, Head of Reviewer Experience, shared: “A notable example is moving away from describing peer review models in which one or more identity is concealed as 'blind peer review', in favour of the more objective and clear term “anonymized peer review”. Elsevier is proud to have adopted this recommendation from NISO peer review terminology standardization(opens in new tab/window) working group across our guides for authors and other documentation.

Be considerate of group preferences

Notwithstanding the points above, some groups would prefer to be referred to by others in the specific ways they themselves have adopted, which may mean using identity-first language that allows a group to reclaim an identity that was previously used negatively. The APA disability bias-free language style guide(opens in new tab/window) provides examples of this, and explains that “Honoring the preference of the group is not only a sign of professional awareness and respect… but also a way to offer solidarity.”

Check you are using accurate terminology

We previously discussed the importance of sex and gender reporting and a new guide for authors text is being implemented. The terms “sex” and “gender” should be used carefully and appropriately for the study. The terms cannot and should not be conflated: the term “sex” refers to biological distinction, whereas “gender” is a social construct. Gender includes a spectrum of identities that individuals may choose to use to describe and express themselves, with implications for how people view themselves and each other, how they behave and interact, and how power is distributed in society.

Describe criminal acts accurately, being mindful of power dynamics

In content dealing with violence, abuse, and crimes, use accurate language e.g., “enslaved” versus “slave”, “rape” versus “sex” (without consent)and use the active voice or phrasing which places the responsibility for these acts with the perpetrator, not the victim e.g., “men’s violence against women.”

Shaping a better future together

We hope these above insights help you carefully consider the language you choose to use. By adopting language that empowers and embraces all people, together we will break down barriers and shape a society in which everyone feels recognised and humanised. Language is continually changing, we will make mistakes, but remaining curious and open to new ideas, listening, and committing to learning and evolving will keep us on an inclusive path to the future.

Further reading:

Contributors

Portrait photo of Kate Wilson

KW

Kate Wilson