Inclusive language in science

Analysis of research papers in the life sciences shows increasing use of non-inclusive language
15 April 2021

Interview with 

Aziz Khan, Stanford University


Journals on a bookshelf


Over the last year tensions have heightened around issues of race and colour. So how does science measure up? And are researchers using language that can cause offence? Should we pick our words more carefully? Stanford’s Aziz Khan has been looking at the literature we’ve published over the last 2 decades, as he told Chris Smith...

Aziz - I was struck by people using non-inclusive language in manuscripts, especially research which is done in life sciences. So I looked for research papers between 2000 and 2020 which contained non-inclusive terms with racial connotations, such as blacklists or whitelists or master and slave. So by means of blacklist in molecular biology is a list of genes or proteins which are excluded in the downstream analysis, they are bad while the white list are the good ones.

Chris - When you say you selected these terms, how did you then go and look for them? And where did you search?

Aziz - I used the open access repository the Europe PMC, which contains millions of biomedical research articles to find these research articles.

Chris - And were there many?

Aziz - Yes, surprisingly actually in 2020 the number goes more than 400, while in 2000, it was less than 100

Chris - You can't explain this just on the basis of the volume of publication in the life sciences is rising all the time, therefore this is staying the same in terms of a proportion, but the volume of publications has gone up; you can't explain it on that basis?

Aziz - We looked at that because I corrected it for the number of articles which publish every year in the life sciences.

Chris - So the proportion genuinely has increased in that 20 year period?

Aziz - Yes.

Chris - To what do you ascribe that? Is it just that there's an enormous number of people who are now doing molecular biology and because of the concept of master regulating genes, that that is triggering this or is there more to it?

Aziz - Yes. I think the more research happening mostly in the gene regulation, and the concept of these master regulators was started sometime at that time. And part of the reason is that. But I was okay until people started using slave regulators, I think that's when the problem starts.

Chris - But what would you advise people to say instead then?

Aziz - Well, it's already started changing in terms of some tech companies like Google, Apple and GitHub. And also the UK national cybersecurity already changed these terms which reflect kind of racist culture.

Chris - Things are only worth doing if people a) take them seriously, b) buy into them, and c) they're enforceable. So how would you take this forward then?

Aziz - I think journals have some bigger responsibility and also authors because there are tools now to look for inclusive or non-inclusive language, and avoid some terms which are racially termed like blacklists and whitelists, and also the master and slave.


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