Following the Black Lives Matter protests the scientific community has spoken against the systematic racism in science and called for action to make science more diverse and inclusive. Yet, the growing use of such non-inclusive terms in scientific literature potentially reflects a racist research space that endorses and sustains the use of these terms. The more we use this language, the more it becomes a habit, and we need to act now to avoid passing this behaviour on to future generations of scientists.
Some tech and governmental organisations, such as Google, GitHub, the UK National Cyber Security Centre, among others, are already replacing such terms that reflect a racist culture. I urge the scientific community (including institutions, researchers, funders, learned societies, journals and others) to follow suit, and replace the terms blacklist/whitelist with excluded/included or deny/allow lists, and to use the terms primary and secondary instead of master and slave.
There are several other examples of non-inclusive terminologies that are used in the life sciences and beyond. For example, there are growing concerns over terms with racial etymology, such as “slave-making ants” — a slavery metaphor to describe ant behaviour, or the word “noosing” to describe catching lizards, which reminds people of the racial lynchings of Black people in the United States. A number of plant and animal species also have non-inclusive names or are named after people who were known for their racist rhetoric.
Recently, the racially loaded term “quantum supremacy” was introduced to represent the power of quantum computers, which is now getting replaced by “quantum advantage”. Additionally, in response to recent social unrest, the academic enterprise has started renaming academic buildings, programs and prizes, and removing monuments named after people who were known for their racist comments and ideology. Now, it is time for us to also rethink the language we use to communicate science.
Language matters — it shapes the way we think, see and behave. The list of non-inclusive terms in science is long and widespread across multiple disciplines. As scientists, we have a responsibility to fix the problem and to use language that is inclusive to everyone.
Aziz Khan is a computational biologist in the Stanford Cancer Institute, School of Medicine, Stanford University. This article was originally published by eLife journal and and has been republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution license. Read the original article.