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Bias and Language in Behavioral Sciences Research and Analysis

November 25, 2019

Funder_biasIn our previous post, we discussed the principles of ethical research and the importance of disclosing funding sources. Now let's explore how you can avoid funder bias and why you should use inclusive language in your research and analysis.

Guard Against Funder and Other Biases

Just as reporters should be committed to objective journalism, behavioral scientists have the professional and moral obligation to conduct fair, unbiased research and analysis.

In the health services industry, research findings can educate funders, practitioners, and potential patients of the effectiveness of a new treatment or prevention regime and/or used to develop more effective programs.

Unfortunately, sometimes companies and institutions fund research with the expectation that the scientists doing the research will "steer" the study toward results that put the funder in a positive light.

To avoid funder bias, researchers should only participate in research projects where there is no pressure on them to coerce participants, design tests to generate positive results, or alter their conclusions. They also need to eliminate their personal beliefs and values, perceptions, and emotions from the study, so as not to produce a biased outcome. As a researcher, you have a responsibility to be honest and objective and not give colleagues or the scientific community a reason to distrust your work.

Use Inclusive Language

Non-stigmatizing terminology that is applied with care and takes into account the diversity of your audience sends the message that you are eager to establish a fair and respectful atmosphere around the sharing and discussion of results.

Inclusive language also helps foster respectful relationships. It avoids prejudice and stereotypes. It doesn't exclude people based on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, socioeconomic status, or appearance. It doesn't imply judgment or assign value. Examples of inclusive language in behavioral health include using "substance use disorder" instead of "addiction" or "mental health patient" instead of "mentally ill person."

For all of these reasons, and others, inclusive language and an aversion to bias are absolutely essential if you want your  research and analysis to be taken seriously. If you haven't already, now is an excellent time to incorporate them into your research efforts.

(Ilustration credit: Tarbell)

Peter Gamache, PhD, and Jackie Sue Griffin, MBA, MS, are principals at Turnaround Life, Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps others with grant writing, program development, capacity building, and evaluation.

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