Ethics of Personal Politics

February 10, 2011

I have been thinking lately about the relationship between ethics and (personal) politics in the documentation of endangered languages (or the study of any language, really). Specifically, what are our responsibilities as researchers to either disseminate or withhold particular types of information about a language (putting aside for the moment issues of information gathered incidentally about the speakers) that may arise in the course of such activities, and may be very interesting scientifically, but may also be sensitive for the community of speakers? I am thinking especially of cases where there may be a small-to-medium-sized group of speakers, many or all of whom know each other, but who may not all agree on (a) how best (or whether) to document/preserve/revitalize their language, or (b) on matters of the language itself.

Here are a few situations that I can think of off the top of my head; I have not come across any of these specific situations myself, so please comment if you have better or other examples.

(1) A consultant is seen to have more authority on the language than his/her fellow speakers. Possible issues:
-Other speakers do not volunteer contrary opinions, even though they may use the language differently; data may differ greatly between natural conversation and response to elicitation;
-Other speakers do volunteer contrary opinions, but the primary consultant disagrees with them (and may or may not express wishes about what to do with these contrary opinions).

(2) A consultant is seen to have (or sees her/himself to have) less authority on the language than other speakers. Possible issues:
-Data from this speaker are inconsistent between naturalistic production and elicited production;
-This speaker feels uncomfortable either with naturalistic or elicited data collection.

(3) Community members who speak the language as a second language have more authority in the community than those who speak it as a first language; the researcher finds that the data are inconsistent between the two groups but the community defers to the second language speakers’ opinions when asked.

(4) Speakers identify certain data points as belonging to different dialect groups and the researcher does not find that the data fall into such groups; OR, speakers do not identify into separate dialect groups, but the researcher finds such patterns in the data.

And so on. Has anyone dealt directly with any situations similar to these, either successfully or unsuccessfully? What resources have people found useful for approaching such situations? I’m interested here not necessarily in how to deal with potentially difficult social situations in fieldwork, but in what our ethical obligations or responsibilities are as language scientists, in terms of publishing and drawing conclusions from data collected from such situations (assuming that we have permission to do so in the first place).


American Anthropological Association core ethical principles posted online for public review and comment

February 3, 2011
Lise Dobrin writes:
After tinkering with its Code of Ethics on and off for years, in 2008 the American Anthropological Association established a Task Force to provide a comprehensive review the Code and propose revisions in a more systematic way. Although the process was originally expected to be completed by November 2010, the research and reflection demanded by such an ambitious project has (understandably) caused the timetable to expand; the new draft code and associated report will be submitted to the AAA Executive Board this November, after which the AAA membership will have the opportunity to vote on the final draft.
Besides being refreshingly proactive (the American anthropological community is very good at monitoring itself and exploding in controversy over the ethical comportment of its members), one of the most exciting aspects of the Code review is the consultative nature of the process the Task Force has adopted. Early in its review the Task Force conducted a member survey to help them understand how anthropologists were using the current Code, where they felt it was insufficient, and what they believed they needed a code for. Now, as they begin thinking about revisions, they are trying to identify core statements or principles (Be open and honest regarding your work. Make your results accessible.Balance competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties), and are asking for our help in crafting those. They are posting their thoughts on the AAA blog, principle by principle, and soliciting comments/feedback from anyone who cares enough about anthropological ethics to respond. The process is continuing for another few months, so keep checking back to see what you think!

Fieldwork Classes and the IRB

January 13, 2011

I am teaching a traditional field methods class this semester. We are working with a speaker of a Tibeto-Burman language. The class has both undergraduate and graduate students in it. Late last semester I called Yale’s IRB regarding the question of whether the class required IRB clearance, and if so, which forms I should use (at my university we have separate forms for student research and class projects). I am reproducing my IRB’s response and their rationale here.

The class was determined to be not subject to IRB review. That is, it did not come under the definition of “research involving human subjects” from the regulatory perspective. (Remember that this is distinct from “exempt”, which is a category of review.)

There were two reasons for the determination, as I understand it. The first was that it is a class activity, and most class activities are considered not to come under these rules. The relevant passage in the regulations is here:

§46.101 To what does this policy apply?

(b) Unless otherwise required by department or agency heads, research activities in which the only involvement of human subjects will be in one or more of the following categories are exempt from this policy:

(1) Research conducted in established or commonly accepted educational settings, involving normal educational practices, such as (i) research on regular and special education instructional strategies, or (ii) research on the effectiveness of or the comparison among instructional techniques, curricula, or classroom management methods.

In this case, even though publications are likely to come out of the project, this clause was deemed to cover field methods classes.

The second reason was that the class is studying the structures of language, not human behavior. That is, we will be doing research about the properties of the language, and not the speaker. The crucial point here is the definition of a human subject:

(f) Human subject means a living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research obtains …

Since we are not gathering information about our consultant, but about her language, the regulations don’t apply.

Note: I present this material here as a case study. I am not saying that on the basis of this determination, no field methods classes need to be approved by IRBs. Instructors for field methods classes need to check with their own IRBs about how they interpret these regulations. Furthermore, in my class I make sure that the students receive training in consent procedures and other areas of ethical regulation, and our consultant is an employee of the university for this semester (that is, we employ our consultant as an junior instructor in the class) – this may also have an effect on how the regulations are interpreted.


Invitation for Discussion: LSA Resolution

April 27, 2010

Those readers who are members of the LSA will have received an invitation to vote on two resolutions. One of these is directly relevant to the ethics committee:

Whereas modern computing technology has the potential of advancing linguistic science by enabling linguists to work with datasets at a scale previously unimaginable; and

Whereas this will only be possible if such data are made available and standards ensuring interoperability are followed; and

Whereas data collected, curated, and annotated by linguists forms the empirical base of our field; …

Therefore, be it resolved at the annual business meeting on 8 January 2010 that the Linguistic Society of America encourages members and other working linguists to:

  • make the full data sets behind publications available, subject to all relevant ethical and legal concerns; …
  • work towards assigning academic credit for the creation and maintenance of linguistic databases and computational tools; and
  • when serving as reviewers, expect full data sets to be published (again subject to legal and ethical considerations) and expect claims to be tested against relevant publicly available datasets.

We’d like readers to identify potential ethical concerns relating to this resolution, so that a set of more explicit guidelines can be developed. Here are a couple:

  • Did the research participants give permission for the raw material to be made available?
  • Is there personal or identifiable information in the data set? Are participants happy for that to be made available?
  • Is the material coded with appropriate metadata?
  • Is the material available in a form that’s actually usable to other linguists?

Responsible Research and the “America Competes” Act

April 13, 2010

[Post by Lise Dobrin]

Sometime late last year, we began to hear rumblings that, beginning in 2010, the University of Virginia would need to provide training in the “responsible conduct of research”[1] (RCR) to those making NSF proposals. Applicant institutions had to have a program in place, and would be responsible for verifying that all individuals conducting research with NSF grant funds had been trained. The requirement derives from something called the “America Competes Act,” which advertises itself as “Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence.” Ugh, I thought. We are about to get socked with new meaningful and excellent online training modules.

Fortunately, I was wrong. The university administrators bringing this new regulation to our attention were wise enough to recognize that what constitutes “scientific responsibility” is likely to be so different in a linguistic field project than, say, in a chemistry lab that totally different approaches to training might be called for. Hence our department (a three-field anthropology department representing sociocultural anthropology, linguistics, and archaeology) was given the green light to come up with our own plan.

Official guidance on how to implement RCR training is scarce. What does “responsible conduct of research” even mean? While at NSF in late 2009, I asked around for advice and was met mostly with scrunched brows. Someone there eventually directed my attention to a very informative recent NIH Notice,[2] the take-away points of which I believe are the following:

Training should include “substantial face-to-face discussions,” “a combination of didactic and small-group discussions,” and “an ideal of full faculty participation.” The NIH guidance specifically notes that “online instruction is not considered adequate as the sole means of instruction.” Hallelujah! Music to the ears!

The subject matter should include conflict of interest; policies regarding human subjects; mentor/mentee relationships; collaborative arrangements; peer review; data management, sharing, and rights; responding to cases of misconduct; responsible authorship and publication; the social responsibilities of the researcher.

Instruction should involve at least eight contact hours. It should take place at least once during each career stage, and as early as possible in a graduate student’s career.

I am not the only one combing the federal guidance docs for clues on how to deal with the new regulation. I had to chuckle a couple of months back when I found an ad in my inbox from PRIM&R[3], the professional organization for folks in the regulatory ethics world, offering members the chance to register for their jazzy new RCR webinar. When it’s driving the market, you know it’s for real!

To the NIH desiderata I would add two more, which take into account the concerns of the “regulees.”

Efficiency. Our department calendar is already bursting at the seams, so if we’re going to achieve anything remotely resembling “full faculty participation,” we cannot be loading another eight hours of scheduled events onto people’s backs.

Inoffensive format. Scholars often bristle at administrative edicts that come down to them from on high, and for good reason. Why should administrators know better than you do how to deal with ethical challenges your students are likely to face? “Helping students think about ethical research” is something researchers might get behind. But “compliance with ethics regulations” often feels like a burdensome imposition that has nothing to do with ethical research practice.

I actually have a philosophy about ethics regulation. It’s easy to be cynical. Institutions care about compliance because they are covering their own butts. But to the extent that the regulations overlap in substance with our own professional interests, it’s only sensible to co-opt them for our purposes. That’s why I feel it’s so important for researchers to insert themselves actively into the regulatory process at their own institutions. If you’re going to have to do this stuff anyway, you might as well make it good use of your time.

So here’s what we put together by way of an RCR compliance plan for our department. Feel free to lift any or all elements that you think might work for yours!

IRB orientation (one 2-hour session), offered to incoming students in the fall of each year. Topics covered include the history and (non-cynical) rationale of human subjects regulation, overview of disciplinary and other resources on ethical research practices, and practical advice for protocol submission.

Ethics workshop for faculty and graduate students (two 2-hour sessions), held once per semester. The format followed at these can vary. For example, a faculty member or student might offer a brief presentation on the ethical challenges they face in some aspect of their research, followed by open discussion and group problem-solving.

Book discussion (one 2-hour session). Each year a rotating group of faculty and advanced graduate students leads a discussion of a relevant book on research ethics and methods such as On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research[4] developed by the U.S. National Academies. This handy little book is the standard reference on the responsible conduct of research, covering a wide range of topics and taking a very useful case-based approach. Plus it’s available free online. Not all of the book’s content will resonate for the members of our department, whose methods tend to fall more in the range of qualitative social science and humanities than the hard sciences presumed by the book. But perhaps students can use the book as a model for writing brief case studies of their own, which may in turn be used as materials in future iterations of the training. We’ll just have to see how it goes.

Compliance is documented by collecting signatures on attendance sheets at each event. A faculty member maintains the documentation file and serves as the departmental contact to the university research office.

Let me conclude with a few comments on what makes this program for RCR compliance attractive to me. We’re already doing IRB training; this just makes it mandatory. We’re already doing workshop-style presentations on the ethical issues in our research (which in our department is almost entirely field-based); now students just have to sign in when they show up. And they do show up, not because they need to accumulate training hours but because the discussions are so interesting! So the third component, the book discussion, is the only activity that is really new. And this I believe is serving a real need. It’s easy to go on about the complex expectations and power differentials we deal with in relation to our research subjects. But our relationships with one another are the hardest thing in the world to talk about. Having a book there as a neutral third-party might make these conversations easier to have.

So, those are my thoughts on RCR compliance. If the RCR storm hasn’t hit your institution yet, maybe you can try to take control of the situation and propose your own local plan too.


[1] http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/E9-19930.htm

[2] http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-10-019.html

[3] http://www.primr.org/

[4] http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12192


Informal survey on human subjects review

January 28, 2010

I am conducting an informal survey on linguists’ (particularly fieldworkers’) experiences with human subjects approval. The survey is very short and is entirely anonymous. (Note that this is not an official activity of the ethics committee.)

Click here to take survey

Results will be posted here when the survey is completed.


Research Monitoring

May 26, 2009

Someone recently sent me a link to the Australian Indigenous Law Reporter‘s 2003 Guidelines for Indigenous Research. These are not IRB guidelines; they have no legislative power (as far as I know), they apply to research done through the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (note that research project here has no technical definition).

The first paragraph is striking:

It is ethical practice in any research on Indigenous issues to include consultation with people who may be directly affected by the research or research outcomes whether or not the research involves fieldwork.

This would seem to imply that if I go to my local library and use published materials to write a paper on some aspect of Indigenous languages, I would need to obtain the permission of those groups (who? the person who talked to the original researcher and their family? the community council? the Land Council?) in order to publish it.

Section 7 contains the following guideline:

Research on Indigenous issues should also incorporate Indigenous perspectives and this is often most effectively achieved by facilitating more direct involvement in the research.

Does this imply that research which may be contradictory to “Indigenous perspectives” is inethical? For example, is research in Australian prehistory inethical, since a hypothesis of mid-Holocene expansion of Indigenous groups in Australia is in contradiction to traditional belief systems which either place people on the land since the beginning of time or have languages placed there by culture heroes? How does one sensitively and appropriately incorporate perspectives which are based on an incompatible set of assumptions? (At some level this guideline seems to me to be not all that different from requiring research on evolution to incorporate perspectives on creationism.)

Finally, these guidelines appear internally contradictory by simultaneously requiring recognition of individual differences while (in several different sections) demanding public acknowledgement of participants. They demand consensus, negotiation and inclusion of indigenous participants as researchers while at the same time requiring research participants to defer at all times to an undefined group of people. That also seems to be contradictory.

The intent of the guidelines is clear; the guidelines seem to guard against the type of exploitative, generalistic and unethical research which indigenous people (particularly in Australia) are justifiably angry about and eager to prevent. Does a set of guidelines like this achieve that?


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