The word Caucasian should be banned in scientific studies and papers because it is "associated with a racist classification of humans", according to a group of leading academics.

Caucasian, they say, is "outdated and scientifically incoherent" and scientists should "avoid usage where possible".

Five genetics experts wrote the article, entitled "The language of race, ethnicity, and ancestry in human genetic research", including scientists from the University of Cambridge and University College London (UCL). The article has been published on the pre-print server arxiv.

"Our intention is to stimulate a much-needed discussion about the language of genetics, to begin a process to clarify existing terminology, and in some cases adopt a new lexicon that both serves scientific insight, and cuts us loose from various aspects of a pernicious past," the researchers write. 

Explaining their reasons why, they say: "[Caucasian is] an 18th-century term invented to denote pale-skinned northern and western Europeans, or in other archaic connotations a wider range of people based on skull measurements, including west Asians, south Asians, north Africans and Europeans.

"In both historical contexts it asserts superiority over other groups and its current usage is therefore laden with scientific, etymological and cultural problems."

It should only be used when absolutely unavoidable, the researchers say, and even then it should be caveated to explain it has "no scientific validity".

Another recommendation is that the word should be fitted with quote marks when used in any analyses.

The scientists say the main issue with Caucasian is it is an "old term associated with racist and pseudo-scientific classifications of humans".

Glossary of terms – and what to use instead

One of the five authors, who all contributed equally, is Dr Adam Rutherford, a prominent science communicator, author, broadcaster and an Honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL.

He announced the new paper, which he says has been accepted by a journal but not yet published, on his Twitter feed.

"I have been working on this a while: sparking a conversation about the lexicon of genetics, which continues to utilise scientifically redundant, confusing and racist terminology," he said. "We’re definitely not prescribing or policing language, but want to prompt a dialogue with colleagues in similar and adjacent fields about our terminology, datasets and tools, and move towards a lexicon that both serves the science and frees us from a racist past."

Dr Ewan Birney, Deputy Director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory at the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridgeshire, is also a co-author of the article.

He explains that beyond ostracising Caucasian, other terms should also be avoided, including ethnicity labels – such as "Native American", "Hispanic" and "White Irish" – and cultural terms such as "European".

Dr Birney and his colleagues advocate for scientists to replace these commonly used words and phrases with more complex language, based around a two-step genetic analysis.

As a result, he says this more technical language would see the label of "European” replaced with "The European-associated PCA cluster, which aims to minimise variation in non-genetic factors and genetic factors".

‘Bamboozling’ and ‘a bit complex’

This suggestion is, by Dr Birney’s own admission, "bamboozling" and "a bit complex" for non-geneticists.

PCA – or principal component analysis – is a tool for analysing genes that picks up similar physical or biochemical characteristics of species,

However, in the article the scientists say they prioritised "technical accuracy over concision".

"Some of these suggestions may meet with disagreement; we present them partly to stimulate discussion of these and other terms, and in the hope that this will lead to better and more accurate language conventions and less misunderstanding, particularly outside of human genetics," the researchers add.

Dr Alywyn Scally is another of the authors. He works in the genetics department at the University of Cambridge and is based at Darwin College.

Darwin College was set up and named after Sir Charles Galton Darwin – a noted proponent of eugenics and grandson of Charles Darwin – upon his death in 1962.

In a tweet, Dr Scally revealed the opinion piece he co-authored received "constructive input" from Dr Agustin Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University, who last month penned a scathing editorial criticising Charles Darwin.

He accused him of letting his scientific process become "warped" by his prejudices, which included racism, sexism and misogyny.

Dr Michaeil Inouye, of the University of Cambridge, and Dr Jennifer Raff, of the University of Kansas, also co-authored the article.