Offensive or Inclusive Language in Scientific Communication?
How organizations should approach language
Editor’s note: Today’s post is by Richard de Grijs, an associate dean (Global Engagement) and professor of Astrophysics at Macquarie University in Sydney. He served as scientific editor of The Astrophysical Journal from 2006-2012 and deputy editor of The Astrophysical Journal Letters from 2012-2018. Grijs is currently associate editor for the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage.
When NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, announced in August 2020 that it would retire the use of potentially offensive astronomical nicknames, sections of the Internet immediately railed against the organization’s perceived ‘wokeness.’ Numerous social media commentators complained about political correctness gone awry.
As a senior academic, AuthorAID Steward (senior advisor) and freelance provider of academic skills training, I agree that a careful balance must be struck between freedom of expression and the right not to be offended in the workplace. However, I also question the commentators’ implied entitlement that they should be able to use potentially offensive expressions indiscriminately. It seems rather elitist to assume that any of us can simply decide which terms may or may not be offensive to sections of the population we are not part of. NASA’s announcement, combined with the common use of potentially inappropriate terms in my own discipline of astronomy and astrophysics, recently led me to reconsider the inclusivity of my own communications — both in my peer-reviewed scholarly publications and in my public speaking engagements.
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