Words matter: How researchers can avoid stigmatizing language

May 24, 2023

Word choice matters a lot when it comes to research. That’s the main takeaway from a new article co-authored by Arizona State University Assistant Professor Angel Algarin and published in Health Communication.

“Researchers in any field should be cognizant of the language they’re using to describe the people they study so they don’t inadvertently add to the use of stigmatizing language,” said Algarin, who teaches in the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation. A man in a white doctors coat types on a laptop. Only his hands and part of his arms are visible. There is a stethoscope visible in the foreground. A content analysis of HIV-related stigmatizing language found more than 26,000 uses across publications in a 10-year period. Photo courtesy Shutterstock Download Full Image

For the article, Algarin and his co-authors performed a content analysis of HIV-related stigmatizing language published in scientific literature from 2010 to 2020. 

They found 26,476 peer-reviewed articles that used variations of the stigmatizing term “HIV/AIDS-infected.” More than a third of these articles came from the United States. And the journal that used the stigmatizing language the most was one that focused on general science and medicine. 

“The use of stigmatizing language in science is concerning, as the words we use are read by health care professionals, policymakers and journalists, who in turn use this same language when discussing topics surrounding HIV because they trust that we are the experts,” Algarin said.

The consequences of using terms that stigmatize entire groups of people are well documented. As a social epidemiologist and interventionist, Algarin’s previous work has focused on the impact of stigma on people living with HIV. 

In his 2020 articles published in AIDS and Behavior and AIDS patient care and STDs, he found that people living with HIV who experienced higher levels of stigma experienced poorer mental health and HIV care outcomes. 

Elijah Palles has experienced stigmatizing language firsthand in peer-to-peer conversations and in health care settings. Shortly after he was diagnosed with HIV, he said he encountered a case manager who was “shocked” that someone “like him” with a job, car and house could be living with HIV.

“I felt stupid because I do have resources and I do know better, but I beat myself up for a while thinking she’s right, I’m not the typical person who would contract this, and then I had to say, 'Well no, I’m just like every other person who contracts this.' So, that interaction fed into my own internalized stigma for a while,” Palles said.

As a Valleywise Health Voices of Hope Speakers Bureau member and Maricopa County Department of Public Health Positively You! Ambassador, Palles regularly shares his story to help raise awareness about available resources, combat misinformation and reduce HIV-related stigma. Recently, he spoke with students at Edson College as part of a public health presentation by the county.

He said Algarin’s work on this issue is important and much needed.

“They are in the driver’s seat of the conversation, and if you’re using a term like 'HIV-infected,' that is very stigmatizing because you’re saying someone is infected and that goes back to this idea of clean versus dirty,” Palles said.

The point of Algarin’s article wasn’t to call anyone out, but instead to highlight the real-world impact of researchers’ work and more specifically how the words they use affect people.

“I understand that people engaged in research may not intentionally be using stigmatizing language, but we should see this as an opportunity to do better,” Algarin said.

David Coon, Edson College associate dean of research initiatives, support and engagement, said there is always room for improvement. And one of the key ways to avoid harmful terminology is to connect with the community.

“At ASU and Edson College, we take our commitment to social embeddedness seriously. So, it’s imperative that we listen to the voices of the communities we work with and do our best at every step in terms of the language we use in how we communicate with them and about them. In doing so, we respect their choices about how they self-identify and want to be represented in research,” Coon said.

Raising the issue has resulted in some positive changes. According to the article, the use of stigmatizing language specific to HIV/AIDS started to decrease after the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS released an update to HIV terminology guidelines

In addition to referencing language guides on appropriate terms to use, Algarin said there are three specific actions researchers can take to reduce the stigma in scientific literature:

  • Ensure the use of appropriate terms in the manuscripts you’re writing.

  • Suggest the use of non-stigmatizing terms when serving as a peer reviewer.

  • If you are an editor, implement a non-stigmatizing terminology policy in the instructions for authors.

“Implementing these practices can show the communities that we work with that we are not only listening, but we are actively making changes to respect preferred, non-stigmatizing terminology. It is my hope that making these changes brings us one step closer to ending the perpetuation of stigma in science,” Algarin said.

Amanda Goodman

Senior communications specialist, Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation


5th alumni class graduates from ASU Leadership Institute

May 24, 2023

The Arizona State University Alumni Association announced the graduation of 26 Sun Devil alumni from the 2022–23 ASU Leadership Institute program earlier this month.

This is the fifth cohort to complete the nine-month personal and professional development program that takes an in-depth look at the New American University; provides thought-provoking conversations with faculty, staff, deans and leaders throughout the four campuses; and builds a network among a group of alums. ASU Leadership Institute class stands together on the steps of Old Main. The 26 members of the ASU Leadership Institute's fifth cohort at their graduation ceremony. Photo courtesy Tim Trumble Download Full Image

Participants in Class 5 represented varying personal and professional backgrounds, including business leaders, nonprofit executives, community leaders, entrepreneurs, developers and educators. The alums were sponsored by their companies to dedicate one Friday a month to immerse themselves in the ASU Innovation Days. 

During the Innovation Days, key ASU leaders shared conversations about varying aspects of leadership and what it means to be a leader. Speakers included ASU President Michael Crow; James Rund, senior vice president, Educational Outreach and Student Services; Ray Anderson, vice president, University Athletics; Christine Wilkinson, president and CEO, ASU Alumni Association; and Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, special advisor to Crow for leadership initiatives and co-founder of the ASU Leadership, Diplomacy and National Security Lab. 

The program aims to inspire participants and enhance their leadership development; it also prepares them to serve on ASU boards and councils, mentor students and serve as community ambassadors.

During the graduation ceremony held on Friday, May 12, in the Carson Ballroom of Old Main, the class nominated Abhay Khaire, ‘15 MS, to give the graduation remarks on behalf of his cohort. Khaire spoke of his journey to America, attending ASU for his master’s degree in engineering and Class 5’s experiences over the past nine months. 

Ellyse Crow, ASU Alumni association director of affinity programs and ASU Leadership Institute lead, said at the graduation: “Throughout our time together, it has been impactful to watch you grow professionally in your network, personally in your leadership and passionately about your alma mater — Arizona State University.”

Congratulations to the graduates of the ASU Leadership Institute Class 5:

Megan Cesiel, Salt River Project.

Kristina Chumpol, Fiesta Bowl.

Jana Crum, Welby Health.

Wesley Despins, Sundt Construction.

Shannen Falkenrath, LinkedIn.

Chrystine Geele, Sundt Construction.

Angela Gonzales, Bell Bank.

Philip Hensley, JE Dunn Construction.

Christina Hudson, Find180 LLC.

Danita Jackson, Arizona Birth Network.

Amy Johnson, Khan World School at ASU Prep Digital.

Ryan Johnson, Salt River Project.

Maureen Jorden, Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center.

Abhay Khaire, Dibble.

Anne Landers, Junior Achievement of Arizona.

Thomas Maynard, Greater Phoenix Economic Council.

Adam Mims, Oak View Group.

Thomas Myzia, Kitchell.

William Nolde, DraftKings.

Andrew Ostrander, Ostrander Real Estate Group.

Jared Phelps, Alliance Bank of Arizona.

Jennifer Rearich, Maricopa County Assessor’s Office.

Debbie Smith, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Arizona.

Kelley Tucker, Baker Bros Flooring.

Kaitlyn Wittig, Lauren’s Institute for Education.

Marge Zylla, city of Tempe.

To learn more about the ASU Leadership Institute, visit alumni.asu.edu/engage/leadership-institute. Applications are closed for ASU Leadership Class 6, but the application process for Class 7 will open January 2024.

Morgan Harrison

Vice President, ASU Alumni Association