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The American Psychological Association website viewed through a magnifying glass.

The American Psychological Association has issued new guidance about race, ethnicity and culture in scientific publications.Credit: Postmodern Studio/Shutterstock

The United States’ largest association of psychologists has released its first recommendations for authors, reviewers and editors on how to address race, ethnicity and culture more equitably when publishing research.

The sweeping recommendations, published by the American Psychological Association (APA) on 2 November, call for authors and others involved in publishing research to adopt a wide range of practices, such as explicitly addressing the over- or undersampling of certain demographics and clarifying the limits to which a study’s results can be extrapolated to different racial and ethnic groups. The guidance is aimed at all psychology researchers, not just APA members or those who contribute to the APA’s journals.

The hope is that the guidance will address long-standing deficiencies in the field, says Mo Wang, who specializes in occupational-health psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville and chaired the working group of ten people who formulated the recommendations. “In psychological research, researchers have often adopted a colour- and power-evasive stance,” he says. “Oftentimes, race, ethnicity and culture have been overlooked.”

Best practices

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Two years ago, the APA issued an apology for its role in fostering racism in the United States, including the use of psychological research to support eugenics and racist policies. The new recommendations aim to build on that apology by offering concrete guidance on how to address race, ethnicity and culture in scientific manuscripts.

These measures include the need for authors to acknowledge the impact of the racial and cultural histories of the communities being studied, and to state how the ethnicity and culture of the researchers themselves could influence results. The guidance also calls for reviewers to evaluate and address the potential of a study to be misused in ways that cause harm. And it includes statistical considerations, such as the need for analyses to account for potential over- or undersampling of different groups.

The APA guidelines join a bevy of other recommendations regarding equity and racism that have been issued by scientific and medical publishers and professional associations in the past three years. “It’s a continuously evolving discussion,” says Alyna Kahn, a biostatistician at the University of Washington in Seattle who helped to author guidance1 on how race, ethnicity and ancestry are used in some genetics research. Each iteration builds on the guidance issued previously, she says, and adapts it to suit particular fields or approaches.

Enforcement dilemma

The APA guidelines address important issues, and could bring more attention to the subject of equity in research, says Meera Viswanathan, director of the RTI International–University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Evidence-based Practice Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. But the APA’s focus on publishing is inherently limited, she adds, because it does not address many of the steps up- and downstream of publication. “It is an absolutely necessary but not a sufficient step forward,” she says. “It needs to be accompanied by recommendations that alter what kinds of research get funded, and how that funded research gets translated into practice.”

Lack of enforcement presents another potential problem, Viswanathan says. Wang says that the guidance does not advise editors to reject papers for failing to comply with the new standards. But editors are encouraged to incorporate the recommendations into feedback to the authors.

But some of the recommendations could require authors to do extra analyses and literature searches, and could also make manuscripts longer. And the more onerous a recommendation is, the less likely researchers are to voluntarily follow it, Viswanathan says. “If it is left as optional, there’s a risk that it’ll just collect dust.”

Even so, the APA’s recommendations are valuable, she adds. “It’s part of a much larger set of activities that needs to happen in order to centre racial equity,” she says. “It is absolutely an important step.”

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