Banishing Bias: A Guide to Reducing Bias in Academic Writing
Monday, February 27, 2012 APA
Possibly because I am short (only 5’4” on a good day), have long brown hair, and sound much like a drunken squirrel when nervous, many people don’t believe that I’ve spent over 30 years on this earth. Frequently, these misperceptions concerning my age cause those around me to take liberties with what they call me. Friends and colleagues alike often don’t flinch when addressing me as girlie, little lady, or honey, terms usually reserved only for children. I can safely say that none of these terms is meant to be malicious. However, this biased language still bothers me because it diminishes my experiences and accomplishments. For instance, a little lady running a marathon or a sweet girlie getting her doctorate is a bit hard to picture, right?
My point here is not to make others paranoid about offending me. I merely use this example to highlight the importance of language—including the tone and the labels we use to describe people. This sensitivity is not just important in conversation; the APA manual suggests that academic writers use language that is free from this same insensitive (and oftentimes unintentional) bias. Writers of the 6th edition manual think this kind of sensitivity to difference is so important they’ve devoted eight pages (pp. 70-77) to it. Condensed, the eight pages break down into five simple rules:
- Be specific when necessary
- Precision is important in academic writing. Referring to all human beings as mankind is an example of limited language. Additionally, specificity based on your research question is important—it will help you and readers better organize and understand your data.
- Leave out superfluous differences
- Although precision is important, you should only use the specifics that are necessary. Highlighting someone’s sexual orientation, marital status, gender, or race when it has nothing to do with your research question is inappropriate. When inserting outside authors’ assertions into your own paper, APA suggests you only use their last name, as other indicators of gender, race, or academic title are generally not necessary.
- Call people what they prefer to be called
- Subgroups of the population generally have preferences regarding what they want to be called. Respect these preferences and make sure you stay current on appropriate language regarding race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and ability (especially if you are writing on these topics).
- Do not reduce people to their ailment or condition
- Avoid identifying people by their disorders, ailments, or conditions. For instance, you want to avoid sentences like “The hospital treated and released the schizophrenic.” A better sentence construction is “The hospital treated and released the man with schizophrenia.”
- Do not make your experience the norm or standard
- Writers frequently bias their language by assuming their experience is the standard experience of their readers. So a writer might say, “Our schools are terrible,” when referring to schools in the United States. However, all readers might not be from the United States. The author’s use of our ignores the reality that readers come from diverse places and have diverse experiences.