An Ethics First

Linguistics society agrees on statement on appropriate research practices. Emphasis is on issues raised in studies of endangered languages.
June 2, 2009

While anthropologists, psychologists and others have been debating research ethics for years, amid various proposals to amend ethics standards, the discussions have been a bit different at the Linguistic Society of America. The linguistics professors weren't debating changes in an ethics code, but whether to have one in the first place.

On Monday, the results of those discussions became clear when the society released its first ever statement on ethics. The document -- three years in the making -- places emphasis on the relationship between linguistics researchers and the people who speak the languages that are studied in the field. "Linguists should do everything in their power to ensure that their research poses no threat to the well being of research participants," the code says.

Specifically the statement says that:

  • Research participants "have the right to control whether their actions are recorded in such a way that they can be connected with their personal identity."
  • Participants "also have the right to control who will have access to the resulting data, with full knowledge of the potential consequences."
  • Linguistics researchers "are responsible for obtaining the informed consent of those who provide them with data (regardless of whether and how that consent is documented), for maintaining any expected confidentiality in storing data and reporting findings, and for ensuring that any individual’s participation in their research is completely voluntary at every stage. Anonymous observations of public behavior, which often cannot involve consent, should include no information that could inadvertently identify individuals."
  • Researchers "should carefully consider whether compensation of some kind is appropriate, be it remuneration for time and effort, or use of their knowledge and expertise to benefit participants or their communities."

In outlining ethical obligations, the new document also stresses that in many cases, individual speakers of a language may not be able to give informed consent by themselves, even after the research is explained.

"While acknowledging that what constitutes the relevant community is a complex issue, we urge linguists to consider how their research affects not only individual research participants, but also the wider community," the statement says. "In general, linguists should strive to determine what will be constructive for all those involved in a research encounter, taking into account the community’s cultural norms and values. Ideal frameworks for interaction with outside researchers vary depending on a community’s particular culture and history. In many communities, responsibility for linguistic and cultural knowledge is viewed as corporate, so that individual community members are not in a position to consent to share materials with outsiders, and linguists must try to determine whether there are individuals who can legitimately represent the community in working out the terms of research."

Other parts of the ethics statement deal with issues that could come up in any discipline, and the linguists call for research integrity, fair treatment of students' and colleagues' contributions to research, and academic integrity -- while coming out against bias or "intimate relations between instructors and students" when "an instructor is in any way responsible for a student's success."

The parts of the document that are about research interactions reflect changing issues and changing awareness in the discipline, said Lise M. Dobrin, director of the linguistics program and assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia, and chair of the panel that drafted the ethics statements.

Until recently, many in linguistics -- depending on which branch of the discipline they were in -- may have relied on other disciplines' ethics codes, she said. But Dobrin said that there is "increasing awareness" that much of the work in linguistics today involves endangered languages, which are spoken by individuals who need special protection and courtesy. "The source of our data is now people."

When linguistics scholars study major languages, they probably have learned to speak those languages themselves and have a range of materials -- books, film, and so forth -- in which to be exposed to the languages. Even when native speakers of these languages are being interviewed, "there are not the same imbalances," Dobrin said.

Part of Dobrin's research concerns the Arapesh languages of Papua New Guinea, which are fading as more people there speak other tongues. Dobrin said that she would try to apply the code by always thinking about the impact of her writing on those who speak the languages. A casual remark she might include in a paper, spread instantly online, could hurt individuals or communities, she said.

That doesn't mean, she stressed, that a linguistics professor can't research issues or publish material that deals with topics a particular group doesn't want discussed. "We're not creating knowledge to hide it -- we would never say that," she said. "And that's exactly why doing this is so hard. What you want to do is alert researchers to the need to be sensitive. What you don't want to happen is to go through research blindly and cause an uproar and not know that it's happening.

"The research has to have integrity, but our job is to navigate these issues with compassion," Dobrin said.

The ethics statement does not address the issue that has led to much rancor in other social sciences: researchers who work for the military or intelligence service. Dobrin said that some scholars wanted the issue addressed explicitly, but that the panel developing the statement opted for "general statements, leaving room for people" to apply these principles to whatever situations they find themselves considering.

Dobrin said she could imagine situations where a linguist might have information that could be shared to save lives. For example, some of the areas she studied in Papua New Guinea are sufficiently remote that some military planner might assume them to be "hardly populated," and someone like Dobrin could flag that "there are people there."

She also noted that this sort of information could be used in other ways -- and said that was why scholars needed to sort out these issues based on their actual situations. The key principle, she said, is that "linguists should be conscious of all the possible social repercussions of their work and ways that their work is likely to be misinterpreted."

Alyson Reed, executive director of the society, said another reason for the new statement was the tension over the role of institutional review boards in reviewing linguistics projects that involve various groups. Many social scientists argue that the review boards -- created in part to protect the interests of human subjects in medical research -- are not well equipped to review work outside of the biomedical arena.

"I think there has been frustration that most IRB's really don't get it when it comes to linguistic research, so this statement is also an educational tool," Reed said.

The society gave members the chance to comment online on drafts of the policy -- and plans to repeat that approach by creating a place to discuss issues raised by the statement, with the idea that it will be updated from time to time.


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