Basics of Avoiding Bias
Writers should write objectively and inclusively to receive respect and trust from readers, as well as to avoid alienating readers. To be objective means to write with curiosity, rather than having a preset opinion, and to engage with research, rather than presenting a personal preference.
Being objective in your writing is a skill that you will develop, just like your academic voice. Though having a passion for your topic makes the writing process easier, it is important not to let it take over your draft. Here are some tips for keeping objectivity and eliminating bias.
Stay away from generalization by avoiding stated or implied "all" or "never" assertions:
Biased: Educators do not consider each child's particular learning style when developing lessons.
This sentence does not acknowledge the variation within the population of educators, implying that all educators are like this.
Better: Some educators do not consider each child's particular learning style when developing lessons.
This sentence acknowledges that there are some educators who do not fall into this category, that all educators are not the same.
Support statements with research or answer the question "Says who?":
Biased: Third-grade boys are chronically disruptive, while the girls are always eager to please.
Here, all boys are generalized as having the same disruptive behavior, while the writer is also assuming all girls are better behaved, showing a bias toward girls.
Better: According to Clooney (2008), who looked at a group of Kansas City third graders, 35% of the boys and 68% of the girls were able to complete instructions for a tedious assignment without showing signs of agitation.
This sentence is more specific, telling the reader the exact percentage of girls and boys that exhibited the behavior, avoiding the assumptions implied by the previous vague phrasing.
Be aware of your own biases and how these may be expressed in writing. This includes:
Assumptions about professions.
Biased: The teacher should use technology when she is teaching her class.
This sentence assumes that teachers are female, making assumptions about the gender of this profession and creating gender bias.
Better: Teachers should use technology when they are teaching their classes.
This statement does not use gender-specific pronouns, but acknowledges a teacher can be male, female, or another gender. Note that this sentence avoids bias by changing the singular "teacher" to be plural and uses plural pronouns.
Beliefs about specific populations.
Biased: Family is very important to the Hispanic population in my town.
This sentence assumes that all people of Hispanic heritage consider family to be important, especially those in the author's town. There is not any room given for difference between these families or recognizing that some people of Hispanic heritage may not consider family to be important.
Better: According to Watson (2011), family is important to 47% of the Hispanic families in Auburn, Indiana.
This revision is more specific and considers the individual differences between Hispanic families by reporting the specific percentage of those who consider family to be important. It also gives specific information about who conducted the study and where, giving credibility to the writer.
Statements based solely on personal experience.
Biased: My daughter texts constantly, which shows that teenagers use cell phones more than they did in the past.
This statement makes an assumption about all teenagers based on the author's personal experience without basing it on research. Although personal experiences are sometimes helpful, they should not be used in capstone research documents; instead, engage with the literature to support key assertions.
Better: Teenagers' use of cell phones, specifically for texting, has increased 33% in the past 2 years (McDonald, 2011).
In this sentence, the writer presents the same assertion but incluces specific statistical data to support the idea. Rather than basing this statement on one teenager's behavior, the writer includes a citation for a study whose author surveyed a larger sample of teenagers.
Bias does not just have negative implications; writers who are too sympathetic are also displaying bias. Giving an overly favorable opinion of someone can eliminate objectivity.
Biased: Although all teachers are very good at helping students learn, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) hinders teachers, not allowing them to serve students well. Without NCLB, teachers would be able to perform their jobs perfectly.
This statement is sympathetic towards teachers, stating that all teachers could help students if only the government had not passed NCLB. It assumes all teachers excel at helping students, not allowing for the possibility that some teachers are not very good at their jobs.
Better: Although most teachers are able to help students learn, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) hinders teachers, making it more difficult to serve students well. Although there are other issues that affect teachers' ability to perform their jobs well, without NCLB more teachers would serve their students better.
This revision takes into account that there are other issues affecting teachers' performance besides No Child Left Behind and provides a more balanced view of teachers' abilities to help students.
Sensitive language helps you avoid bias and be accurate, both of which are key APA commitments as an academic organization. Writers in APA should “avoid perpetuating demeaning attitudes in their writing” and should instead “use affirming and inclusive language” (APA, 2020, p. 131).
Be specific rather than descriptive.
Biased: I surveyed older adults while collecting data.
This statement does not give specific information about the age of the participants, allowing the reader to make assumptions. Without specific information, "older adults" generally could refer to anyone who is 50 years and older.
Better: I surveyed participants between ages 70 and 84 while collecting data.
This statement specifically tells the reader what the age range was for the participants in this survey, ensuring that the reader does not make assumptions about the ages of the participants.
Per APA 7, Section 5.3, use the following terms to refer to individuals by age:
- For individuals 0-12 years of age, use "infant," "child," "girl," "boy," "transgender girl," "transgender boy," "gender-fluid child," and so forth.
- For individuals who are 13 to 17 years old, use "adolescent," "young person," "youth," "young woman," "young man," "female adolescent," "male adolescent," "agender adolescent," and so forth.
- For individuals who are 18 years of age or older, use "adult," "woman," "man," "transgender man," "trans man," "transgender woman," "trans woman," "genderqueer adult," "cisgender adult," and so forth, as appropriate.
Other guidelines for writing about older adults include being as specific as possible, not repeating stigmatizing language, avoiding pejoratives, presenting aging as normal, using group names only as adjectives, and using generational descriptors only in relevant research (see APA 7, Section 5.3).
Keep wording parallel.
Biased: The man and female turned out to be the directors of the Red Cross.
While "man" is fine on its own, paired with "female," it is not parallel. Additionally, "female" should only be used as an adjective (i.e., "the female participant"), not as a noun (like in this sentence). Instead, always use "man" with "woman" and "male" with "female" and only use "male" and "female" as adjectives and "man" and "woman" as nouns.
Better: The man and woman turned out to be the directors of the Red Cross.
In this sentence, the parallel terms "man" and "woman" are used. Also, "female" and "male" are not used as nouns at all.
Avoid viewing gender and sex in binary terms.
Gender is a social construct and is increasingly viewed as a continuum. Many people identify with a gender(s) outside of the male/female binary (e.g., gender-fluid or nonbinary). Referring to individuals in binary gender terms (male/female, he/she) or using phrases such as “the opposite sex” or “the two sexes” implies that there only two genders or sexes.
APA 7, Section 5.5 encourages writers to state gender identity for all participants.
Possibly biased: After the participant signed the informed consent form, he or she received a link to the survey.
This sentence characterizes participants as only having male and female gender identities Pronoun phrases such as “he or she” can be used if all people being discussed use these pronouns to refer to themselves. However, this phrasing is awkward.
Better: After participants signed the informed consent form, they received a link to the survey.
Using the plural “participants” followed by the pronoun “they” avoids characterizing participants as having only male and female gender identities.
Per APA 7, Section 4.18, use the singular “they” and related forms (e.g., them, their) when (a) referring to a person who uses "they" as their preferred pronoun or (b) when a person's gender is unknown or irrelevant.
Per APA 7, Section 5.5, use individuals' preferred names and pronouns even if they differ from official documents, keeping in mind concerns about confidentiality.
Avoid outdated and imprecise terminology when referring to sexual orientation.
Sexual orientation is “a part of an individual's identity” (APA 2020, p. 145) that includes attraction. Conceptualize sexual orientation first by “the degree to which a person feels sexual and emotional attraction" (APA 2020, p. 146)--a person may be sexual, demisexual, or asexual--and second by the direction of their attraction (e.g., to a certain gender(s), keeping in mind this may be unknown or varying in terms of inclusivity).
“LGBT” is outdated, but there is currently no consensus on other terms to use. If using another term, make sure the term is representative of those being discussed.
Biased: The population who were homosexual in the survey responded “no” 75% of the time (Martin, 2010).
In this sentence, the entire population is considered to be "homosexual," which is not very descriptive. Also, “homosexual” is offensive because of its historical use in the literature to stigmatize individuals with orientations to the same sex.
Better: The population who were lesbian responded "no" 75% of the time (Martin, 2010).
Instead, in this sentence, the term "lesbian" is used to be more specific about the sexual orientation of the population surveyed.
Use parallel racial and ethnic identity terms.
Biased: Those surveyed who are African American responded similarly to those who reported being White. In comparison, the non-Whites also responded similarly to the Asians surveyed.
There are many forms of nonparallel terms here:
- The term “African American” is paired with “White,” which is not parallel.
- The African American population is also labeled as “non-Whites,” using one racial group as the primary group.
- The term “Asian” is also not parallel.
Better: Those surveyed who are African American responded similarly to those who reported being European American. In comparison, the African Americans also responded similarly to the Japanese Americans surveyed.
This sentence uses parallel terms for all racial identities, as well as using the specific term "Japanese American." For detailed instructions on these terms, consult the APA style manual's Supplemental Material: Writing Clearly and Concisely.
Use commonly accepted terms (e.g., census categories) to refer to racial and ethnic identity but consult with group members about their preferred terms. Note that “Hispanic” has a different meaning than “Latino.” Per APA 7, Section 5.7, “Latin@” and “Latinx” can be used to avoid the gendered “Latino” or “Latina.”
Acknowledge people’s humanity.
Avoid totalizing language (I.e., language that characterizes people solely based on one aspect of their identity)--for example, referring to people as “gays,” “Blacks,” “juvenile delinquents,” “the poor,” or “the elderly.” Instead, combine these adjectives with nouns (e.g., “Black youth,” “older adults,” or “juvenile offenders”) or use descriptive phrases (e.g., “individuals living in poverty” or “individuals living below the federal poverty threshold”).
Both person-first and identity-first language are acceptable when writing about disability; use the preference of the group being described, if known. An APA guideline is to “call people what they prefer to be called” (see APA 7, Section 5.2, p. 133). Take care when repeating slurs used by members of groups you are studying (see APA 7, Sections 5.3-5.4 for more guidance).
Biased: The epileptics consulted with specialists during the trial to address their particular needs.
This sentence defines people by a label and equates them with their condition.
Better: The individuals with epilepsy consulted with specialists during the trial to address their particular needs.
Here, the personhood of the individuals is affirmed, and the individuals are not characterized solely on the basis of their condition. This sentence is an example of person-first language; the reader sees the person first, then the label. Report socioeconomic status in ways that avoid stereotyping participants.
Because socioeconomic status (SES) is a key aspect of participants’ life experiences, and thus impactful to research outcomes, APA 7, Section 5.9 recommends reporting it in the Method section.
Be as specific as possible about participants’ income levels, occupational status, education, and employment while avoiding language that is stereotypical or pejorative (e.g., “the homeless,” “inner-city,” and “poverty-stricken”). Use precise, person-first language such as “recipients of food subsidies” and “persons experiencing homelessness” instead.
Use strengths-based versus deficit-based terminology (e.g., "opportunity gap" instead of "achievement gap”) to avoid blaming individuals for their circumstances without considering structural factors. Also, to avoid reinforcing implicit construal of "low-income" and "poor" with racial and/or ethnic minority people, "it is critical that authors include racial and/or ethnic descriptors within SES categories" (APA, 2020, p. 148).
Biased: The participants included 17 high school dropouts.
The label “high school dropout” implies that the participants are failures.
Better: Seventeen of the participants did not complete high school.
This phrase is more precise and neutral when referring to participants’ educational status.
American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.).
People-First and Identity-First Language Policy
Walden University follows APA standards for bias in language recommendations when referring to groups or individuals. Student writers should ensure that they are following the conventions and preferences of all the group or population they are describing. This may mean person-first language or identity-first language. Whichever the student writer chooses should be done with intention and respect.
As such, while the APA (2020) recommends using people-first language when addressing persons with disabilities (e.g., children with ADHD; p. 13). It is important to follow the convention and preferences of the group.
Alternatively, APA and Walden also recognize that certain groups or subgroups thereof prefer identity-first language (e.g., autistic children, p. 136). Form and Style Editors will accept people-first and/or identity-first language in student capstone writing so long as evidence can be provided that it is accepted as a respectful term by the community it represents.
Walden student writers should refer to APA for guidance as well as the preferences of the groups they are describing. More information can be found in the APA Manual’s guidance on Choosing Between Person-First and Identify-First Language (and other, relevant information) in APA Section 5 on Bias-Free Language, and Section 5.4, specifically.