Researchers clash over the growing practice of reflecting on one’s identity in a “positionality statement”
When Genevieve Wojcik’s co-authors suggested she include details about her race and family background in a May Nature Genetics commentary, she was skeptical. As a genetic epidemiologist, she had always been taught “to take yourself out of the equation completely,” says Wojcik, who is at Johns Hopkins University. But Wojcik’s colleagues argued that their paper, about the need for multiracial participants in genetics studies, should include a “positionality statement” from each author describing how their identity might influence their work. The practice is becoming increasingly common in scientific papers, to applause from some researchers and chagrin from others.
We are aware of the argument for diversity in the participant cohorts for clinical trials and clinical research (which is essential for the capability and veracity of trials/projects. We know the arguments about peer reviewers and diversity (being alert parachute research and the voice of marginalised communities). We strongly support the calls for constructive change in these important areas. It is definitely time for change. We are less familiar with the arguments for diversity and identity statements regarding authors. This excellent piece presents both sides of the argument in this case. We can see the argument for describing the lived experience of authors when they are talking about a particular demographic, but we are not convinced of this as general requirement.
“It’s an invitation to think more broadly about what your role as a researcher is in the work that you’re trying to understand,” says Alejandra Núñez-de la Mora, a biological anthropologist at the University of Veracruz. She published a 2021 paper in the American Journal of Human Biology arguing that reflecting on one’s positionality can pay off in future work, helping researchers address inequities such as “parachute research,” unchecked power dynamics, and gaps in inclusivity. If you’re an astronomer, for example, think about where your telescope is, she says. “Are you part of that community? Is that telescope put there with knowledge of the people who call that place their land?”
But others question the statements’ value. “I find it amazing that [publishing positionality statements] is becoming so widespread without any evidence that it actually achieves what it sets out to achieve,” says Patricia Nayna Schwerdtle, who studies global public health at Heidelberg University and coauthored a February critique of the practice in Perspectives on Psychological Science.