Posted on December 15, 2021

Human Geneticists Curb Use of the Term ‘Race’ in Their Papers

Rodrigo Perez Ortega, Science, December 2, 2021

Human geneticists have mostly abandoned the word “race” when describing populations in their papers, according to a new study of research published in a leading genetics journal. That’s in line with the current scientific understanding that race is a social construct, and a welcome departure from research that in the past has often conflated genetic variation and racial categories, says Vence Bonham, a social scientist at the National Human Genome Research Institute who led the study.

But alternative terms that have gained popularity, such as “ancestry” and “ethnicity,” can have ambiguous meanings or aren’t defined by genetics, suggesting researchers are still struggling to find the words to accurately describe groups delineated by their DNA, according to the study.


To better understand how geneticists have used population descriptors over time, Bonham and an interdisciplinary team dove into the archives of The American Journal of Human Genetics (AJHG), which has the longest history in the field of genetics.

Editors of AJHG gave the team access to the journal’s entire archive. The researchers quantified specific terms in the full text of 11,635 articles published from 1949—the year the journal started—to 2018. They found the word “race” appeared in 22% of papers in the first decade, but its usage declined to 5% of papers in the most recent decade.

The decline in usage of “race” reflects how geneticists slowly came to understand race as “a social category with biological consequences,” the team writes in its paper, published today in AJHG.

The researchers also found that terms associated with racial groups, such as “Negro” and “Caucasian,” which were used in 21% and 12%, respectively, of papers in the first decade, started to decline after the 1970s. In the last decade, fewer than 1% of papers used those terms. This decline confirms such labels are “not based on immutable biological order but shift in tandem with social context,” the authors write.


The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recently established a committee to produce a consensus report on the use of “race” and other terms as population descriptors in health disparities research. Other researchers are exploring how to adopt an antiracist posture in genetic publications. {snip}