Avoiding Bias: APA’s General Guidelines

Posted August 14, 2017

In scientific writing, researchers must be aware of limiting personal and social biases, especially when referring to, and reporting information about, study participants. APA has developed three general guidelines to reducing bias, which help authors limit demeaning or inaccurate assumptions about people: (a) describe at the appropriate level of specificity; (b) be sensitive to labels; and (c) acknowledge participation. Common areas subject to potential bias include gender, sexual orientation, racial and ethnic identity, disabilities, age, and historical or interpretive inaccuracies. The following detailed guidelines can be accessed in the APA Manual, 6th edition, pages 70–77.

Guideline 1: Describe at the Appropriate Level of Specificity

An essential component of quality, scientific writing is referring to person(s) as accurately as possible. Antiquated writing habits, such as using the word man to refer to all human beings, do not reflect the appropriate terminology when referring to people; women and men is more accurate.  In terms of racial and ethnic groups, researchers need to be “specific and sensitive to issues of labelling” (APA6, 71). For example, when reporting participant demographics, depending on the population under study, Japanese American is more specific and accurate than the broad term of Asian American. In some instances, recognizing differences is irrelevant and may only serve as a means to create more divide between groups. It is the responsibility of the researcher to exercise good judgement regarding generalization and specificity of people.

Guideline 2: Be Sensitive to Labels

It is of utmost importance to respect what people prefer to be called, and to acknowledge such preference changes over time. Remember not to take away participants’ individuality by objectifying them. For instance, the elderly used as a noun refers to this general group of individuals as an object, whereas older adults, the adjective form, “puts the person first” (APA6, p. 72). When referring to people with disabilities, do not equate individuals with their conditions.  For example, do not refer to a group as the schizophrenics, but rather people diagnosed with schizophrenia. Last, be aware of the order employed when listing or organizing social groups, as readers may interpret the first group mentioned as holding some level of preference or dominance. Using a phrase, such as men and women, may indicate that men hold some level of dominance over women; therefore, it is best not to present this information in the same order each time.

Guideline 3: Acknowledge Participation

Use the terms that are most appropriate in your field when referring to participants. Using the active voice will also ensure participants are not being acted upon, but rather taking part in the study. Instead of “the students were given the survey,” one should write “the students completed the survey.” Finally, avoid terms such as patient management, which indicate the author nicolepatients need to be managed, as opposed to the actual treatment needing to be managed. Again, when in doubt, “put the person first.”

Keeping these three guidelines in mind as you write will help ensure fair treatment of individuals and groups, which will enhance your reputation as a respectful academic contributor to the field of research.

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