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Using Person-First Language in Scientific Research

The language we use to talk to people with diabetes, and about diabetes in general, can have a real impact. But are scientific and academic publications doing their part to promote the use of person-first language?

A team of language and stigma experts in partnership with Gelesis, a biotechnology company focused on treating obesity and other gut and stomach-related chronic diseases, recently produced research highlighting the use of person-first language in scientific- and academic-research articles – including a poster presented at the ADA 2022 Scientific Sessions and a recent article in Diabetic Medicine.

Person-first language avoids labeling people by 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”. 

It’s important to note that one should always defer to people with diabetes when it comes to language around their condition. Some people prefer certain terms over others, and while it’s good practice to use person-first language whenever possible, simply asking a person what terms they prefer can go a long way in establishing respect and open communication.

That being said, 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 can contribute 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.

The use of person-first language in diabetes-focused articles increased by an average of about 3% per year. In contrast, this type of language did increase over time in obesity-focused journals, but the numbers remained relatively low (below 1%) until 2020 when it jumped up to around 6.6% of articles.

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 was published more recently, both obesity and diabetes articles were more likely to use person-first language. However it should be noted that only a small proportion of these journals had these types of policies in place (28% of them had a diabetes-specific policy and 28% had an obesity-specific policy). 

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 and how they are perceived by the general public. 

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.

Language is complex and ever-evolving. It’s important that we evolve with it, especially when the research shows that simple changes in the words and phrases we use can have large positive impacts for people with diabetes.

You can see the team’s research poster here and be sure to check out the newly published article, “Person-first language in diabetes and obesity scientific publications.”