Using Person-First Language in Scientific Research – Are We Succeeding?

At the ADA 82nd Scientific Sessions, Matthew Garza, who helps lead the Stigma Program at The diaTribe Foundation, contributed to a powerful poster exhibit on the use of person-first language in scientific- and academic-research articles, in conjunction with a team of language and stigma experts and Gelesis, a biotechnology company focused on treating obesity and other gut and stomach-related chronic diseases. 

Person-first language avoids labeling people with their disease and recognizes that there is more to a person than their diabetes. It means using terms like “person or people with diabetes” instead of  the all too common practice of using “diabetic” or “diabetics”. 

Research has shown that when identity-first language is used over person-first language, it can lead to feelings of low self-esteem and isolation which contribute to worse diabetes outcomes. 

Despite the fact that many professional organizations endorse the use of person-first language in communications involving people with diabetes and obesity, condition-first language is still widely used. This contributes to stigma associated with both diabetes and obesity.

To better understand the extent to which academic and scientific articles focusing on diabetes or obesity use person-first language, the research team identified a long list of terms associated with person-first language and then conducted a search of all the scholarly articles published between 2011 and 2020 to see which ones use each type of language to describe people with diabetes and obesity.

The results were quite shocking, and showed that while small improvements have been made, the adoption of person-first language has slowed substantially in articles about diabetes and has made almost no progress in articles about obesity.

In over 56,000 articles for diabetes during this time frame, only 42.8% used person-first language. In over 45,000 articles on obesity, 0.5% used person-first language.

When broken down further there are some key trends that come to light. Diabetes articles were more likely to use person-first language if they were published in a diabetes-specific journal, while obesity articles were more likely to use person-first language if they were published in a US-based journal.

If that journal had a language policy emphasizing person-first language, or if the article published more recently, both obesity and diabetes articles were more likely to use person-first language.

The way people talk about, and directly to, people with diabetes, especially in healthcare and media settings, influences the language people in the diabetes community use to refer to themselves. 

Choosing to use person-first language in scientific publications can set an example for the way healthcare professionals communicate about and to people with diabetes. This can, in turn, create a large-scale shift, pushing us towards communication that always puts emphasis on the individual.

You can see the full poster here.




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