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APA Stylistics: Avoiding Bias


APA (American Psychological Association) style is most commonly used to cite sources within the social sciences. This resource, revised according to the 6th edition, second printing of the APA manual, offers examples for the general format of APA research papers, in-text citations, endnotes/footnotes, and the reference page. For more information, please consult the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, (6th ed., 2nd printing).

Contributors:Joshua M. Paiz, Elizabeth Angeli, Jodi Wagner, Elena Lawrick, Kristen Moore, Michael Anderson, Lars Soderlund, Allen Brizee, Russell Keck
Last Edited: 2016-02-27 11:05:49

Researchers who use APA often work with a variety of populations, some of whom tend to be stereotyped by the use of labels and other biased forms of language. Therefore, APA offers specific recommendations for eliminating bias in language concerning race, disability, and sexuality.

Make Adjustments to Labels

Although you should avoid labeling whenever possible, it is sometimes difficult to accurately account for the identity of your research population or individual participants without using language that can be read as biased. Making adjustments in how you use identifiers and other linguistic categories can improve the clarity of your writing and minimize the likelihood of offending your readers.

In general, you should call people what they prefer to be called, especially when dealing with race and ethnicity. But sometimes the common conventions of language inadvertently contain biases towards certain populations - e.g. using "normal" in contrast to someone identified as "disabled." Therefore, you should be aware of how your choice of terminology may come across to your reader, particularly if they identify with the population in question.

You can find an in-depth discussion of this issue and specific recommendations for how to appropriately represent people in your text on the APA website on the following pages:

Avoid Gendered Pronouns

While you should always be clear about the sex identity of your participants (if you conducted an experiment), so that gender differences are obvious, you should not use gender terms when they aren't necessary. In other words, you should not use "he," "his" or "men" as generic terms applying to both sexes.

APA does not recommend replacing "he" with "he or she," "she or he," "he/she," "(s)he," "s/he," or alternating between "he" and "she" because these substitutions are awkward and can distract the reader from the point you are trying to make. The pronouns "he" or "she" inevitably cause the reader to think of only that gender, which may not be what you intend.

To avoid the bias of using gendered pronouns:

For more about addressing gender in academic writing, visit the OWL's resource on non-sexist language use.

Find Alternative Descriptors

To avoid unintentional biases in your language, look to the parameters of your research itself. When writing up an experimental report, describe your participants by the measures you used to classify them in the experiment, as long as the labels are not offensive.

Example: If you had people take a test measuring their reaction times and you were interested in looking at the differences between people who had fast reaction times and those with slow reaction times, you could call the first group the "fast reaction time group" and the second the "slow reaction time group."

Also, use adjectives to serve as descriptors rather than labels. When you use terms such as "the elderly" or "the amnesiacs," the people lose their individuality. One way to avoid this is to insert an adjective (e.g., "elderly people," "amnesic patients"). Another way is to mention the person first and follow this with a descriptive phrase (e.g., "people diagnosed with amnesia"), although it can be cumbersome to keep repeating phrases like this.

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