Inclusive Language Policy

The South African Journal of Science is an interdisciplinary journal with authors and readers across a wide range of fields. Most of these authors and readers do not have English as a first language. It is part of the mission of the Journal to disseminate the highest quality science from Africa and to encourage debate and research across disciplinary and language divides. Many other scientific journals internationally have policies to encourage inclusive and accessible language; having such a policy and requiring authors to write accordingly serves the goals of science more generally and is also especially important in the context of our mission.

We recognise that issues of language are contested and that practices change over time. We present the policy here as a framework, but encourage all authors who may have good reason to use terms and language in different ways to discuss their approach with the Editor-in-Chief. These guidelines are designed to assist and include rather than to exclude, and we regard this policy as a living document open to development and change over time. We welcome discussions from authors as they submit to the Journal.

 What is accessible language?

For our purposes, accessible language is clear and simple and can be understood by readers in other disciplines and by those for whom English is not a first language. It is a skill to communicate complex ideas in an accessible way.

To promote accessibility, authors should avoid:

  • overly technical or unnecessary terminology
  • unnecessarily long and convoluted sentences
  • repetition and sweeping statements
  • overuse of uncommon acronyms and abbreviations
  • idiomatic speech, e.g. hit the nail on the head

Authors should:

  • be precise and specific
  • wherever possible, use the active voice, e.g. We investigated the effect of coffee on heart rate NOT The effect of coffee on heart rate was investigated; Participants completed the survey online NOT The survey was completed online by the participants.
  • wherever possible, explain technical terms necessary to a contribution such that scientists from other disciplines may understand

 What is inclusive language?

Inclusive language acknowledges diversity, is sensitive to differences and conveys respect to all people.

The words we use matter. The words we choose – particularly words which describe people – need to convey support for diversity, and respect.

At its most fundamental, using inclusive language means taking care not to imply that one individual or group is superior to another individual or group on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, health status, age, socio-economic status, or any other social marker. Difference in itself is not necessarily an indicator of hierarchy, and it is often important to mention differences. Inclusive language also avoids assumptions and prejudices of one group about another.

We recommend therefore that authors reflect on whether it is relevant to use descriptors that refer to race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, health status, age, or gender in their manuscripts, and not take as given the relevance of these categories for every manuscript.

When it is relevant and valid to use descriptors related to race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, health status, age, or gender, authors can be respectful by ensuring that:

  • the manuscript does not include use of stereotypes, slang, and/or cultural assumptions
  • relevant data are provided to contextualise information on human participants, including on the social determinants of health and well-being (socio-economic status, education, neighbourhood and physical environment, employment, and social support networks, and access to health care).

Reporting race and ethnicity

Although race and ethnicity are related concepts, they are not interchangeable. Race is a social construct which is based mainly on perceived differences between people (most commonly, skin colour). Ethnicity, while also a social construct, is a complex concept that reflects ancestry, cultural heritage, language, religion, and a range of other factors such as a sense of belonging.

Although race and ethnicity have no biological meaning, they have social meanings which have very real impacts on people’s lives. As such, it may be necessary to report race and ethnicity in order to shed light on inequities and health disparities. It may also be important to identify the race or ethnicity of participants to provide information about the potential generalisability of the results of a study.

Where it is relevant and valid to do so, reporting of race and ethnicity should not be done in isolation, but be accompanied by reporting of other socio-demographic factors and social determinants, including – where relevant – information necessary to understand disparities and inequities.

Using inclusive and appropriate language in relation to race and ethnicity begins by providing participants with a comprehensive range of categories and subcategories to choose from where self-reported racial or ethnic identity data are being collected. Many people may identify with more than one race and/or ethnicity, and so the option to select multiple, not mutually exclusive categories should be made available where possible. Even where race or ethnicity is reported to provide a sense of the general applicability of results to the wider context, researchers must be cautious in generalising findings from studies to groups simply on the basis of a shared identity category.

The rationale behind any racial or ethnic groupings used should be provided in the Methods section. Use lowercase for reporting of ‘black’, ‘coloured’ and ‘white’ groups.

In the South African context, it is particularly important to be clear about the difference between biological markers (ancestry) and social categories (‘race’). This difference is explored in detail by Bardien-Kruger and Muller-Nedebock (Jansen and Walters; African Sun Media 2020). We recognise that it is important to be sensitive to local conditions and usages.

Reporting culture

Use of the word ‘culture’ in scientific reporting must be done with an awareness that there is no single representation of culture. As for reporting of race and ethnicity, reporting of culture should not be done in isolation, but be accompanied by reporting of other socio-demographic and contextual information.

Reporting sex and gender

‘Sex’ refers to the biological and physiological characteristics, such as reproductive organs, hormones and chromosomes, that differentiate female, male and intersex individuals.

‘Gender’ refers to the social, environmental, cultural, and behavioural factors associated with being, for example, a woman, a boy, or transgender.

Gender includes gender identity*. Gender identity is a personal sense of being of a particular gender. There are many different gender identities, and they are not tied to a specific sex. Gender identity is identified by an individual and should not be assumed or imposed from the outside. Sometimes it is appropriate to use the phrase ‘self-identify’ or ‘people who identify as …’ when referring to people’s gender identities, to make it clear that the final responsibility for gender identification lies with the individual.

Manuscripts should include how sex and/or gender was determined (e.g. participants filled in a demographic form in which they identified as either male, female, transgender etc.; or birth certificates/medical records were mined for information on sex assigned at birth).

When working with all human subjects, but particularly transgender people, ensure that you write using their self-identified pronouns. If their pronouns are unknown, you may simply use ‘they’ as a gender inclusive singular pronoun.

We suggest the use of gender-neutral terms, e.g. chair NOT chairman; police officer NOT policeman; layperson NOT layman.

*Key terms related to gender diversity are described here.

 Reporting disability, impairment and health status

There is often confusion about how to use the term disability, and it has been inconsistently applied to a range of different phenomena, particularly in medical research. Use the word ‘impairment’ to refer to an injury, illness, or congenital condition that causes or is likely to cause a loss of functioning or a difference in physical or mental functioning. A spinal cord injury is a kind of impairment. Disability, on the other hand, refers to the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in society on an equal basis to others due in part to social and environmental barriers. While it may be acceptable to speak about people with physical disabilities, it is important to note that someone has an impairment, but that disability is something which occurs when an impairment interacts with the environment.

There may be cases where the terms functional difficulties or functional limitation are more accurate or useful than ‘disability’. Functional difficulty is defined as difficulty in any of the following domains: sensory functions, movement, cognition, or emotional functions or behavioural functions. See here for a useful guide on what these terms mean and how they can be used.

When writing about people with disabilities, it is important to use language that is inclusive and accurate. Some historical and contemporary documents may use potentially offensive terminology, and where you are referring to these cases, text should be clearly demarcated through the use of ‘sic’.

It is worth enquiring of participants whether they have a preference in terms of how their impairment and/or disability is reported. It is quite common practice in disability scholarship to write people/persons with disabilities rather than disabled people (as we illustrated in the introduction above), and you may want to use this phrasing. However, if it is clear that your work is influenced by what is termed the social model of disability, we will accept the terminology ‘disabled people’.

Avoid problematic language in reference to disability and impairment, e.g. ‘handicapped’, ‘the disabled’, people suffering from’, ‘wheelchair-bound’ (for other examples see here).

When writing about people with and people without disabilities, avoid language which implies a deficit on the part of people with disabilities. For instance, write ‘people without disabilities’ rather than ‘normal people’, ‘healthy people’, ‘able-bodied people’ and so forth. There is a useful guide here which describes steps which can be taken to strengthen reporting about disability.

If you do not know the preference of the individual, use ‘people-first’ and neutral language, e.g. ‘a person with schizophrenia’ rather than ‘a schizophrenic’; ‘a person diagnosed with cancer’ rather than ‘a cancer victim’ (in general, avoid the word ‘victim’). Where authors are familiar with, or engaging in, debates about ‘people-first’ versus ‘identity-first’ language, they may use language according to their position and explain this in a covering letter to the editor.


Additional resources from C4DISC (Coalition for Diversity and Inclusion in Scholarly Communications):