1. Introduction.

Linguists work in a variety of settings and approach the study of language from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Each research setting presents a specific set of potential ethical dilemmas. It is the responsibility of linguists individually and collectively to anticipate ethical dilemmas and to avoid harm to those with whom they work.

The Linguistic Society of America does not adjudicate claims of unethical behavior. This statement is meant to provide linguists with a framework for making ethical choices and to foster broader discussion of ethics in the discipline.

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9 Responses to 1. Introduction.

  1. Ronald R. Butters says:

    A panel on ethics in linguistic consulting has been proposed–and tentatively accepted–for the 2009 LSA meeting. Papers by four linguists and a law professor will address this particular aspect of the LSA Ethics Committee’s work. I am one of the two organizers of this panel. It is our hope that any ethics statement will address such issues as the panel will raise. While our particular focus is on “forensic” linguistics, we believe that our findings have implications for ANY commercial adversarial use of linguistic research. We will address such questions as these: (1) Under what circumstances should the linguist feel it necessary to reveal that published research stems from consulting relationships? (2) What considerations should be given to the qualifications of the consulting linguist? Can the LSA take a meaningful role in this? (3) How can the consultant best deal with the linguist’s commitment to scientific objectivity in a situation that is essentially adversarial? (4) What can we learn from attorneys about their ethical boundaries in using linguistic consultants? (5) What can we learn from consulting the experiences (and codes of ethics) of other scientific professions that frequently provide experts in testimony (e.g., engineers, physicians, psychologists, art historians)?

  2. Ronald R. Butters says:

    One correction:

    I meant to write, “… commerical OR adversarial …” As Geoff Nunberg has pointed out to me, the panel means to “include as well reports of research (e.g., in computational linguistics) sponsored by companies with a stake in a particular technology or approach.”

  3. David Bowie says:

    A general comment, but one that was mainly put into my mind by the line in section 4 that reads “Linguists should make all reasonable efforts to preserve their original documentary materials.”

    My school’s IRB, for one, is astonishingly adamant about having documentary materials destroyed at the end of a research project. I understand that this is an extreme case, but I just wanted to point out that there’s a (potential) conflict between a number of the ideals in this proposed statement and the policies of individual linguists’ home institutions. I’m thinking that this issue might should at least be acknowledged somewhere in this document.

  4. Claire says:

    @David: I can answer your point about conflicts between individual IRBs on behalf of the committee.

    This is one of the reasons we think the LSA should have an ethics statement. If an individual researcher wants to argue against an ethics board’s ruling that their primary fieldnotes should be destroyed, currently there aren’t a lot of items they can quote in favour of their position (although there are some instructions about archiving in some field methods books, and there’s nothing in the legislation that requires the destruction of original materials). Being able to point an IRB towards a statement like this may help in such discussions.

  5. Geoffrey Sampson says:

    The statement “Each research setting … presents … potential ethical dilemmas” seems exaggerated to me. Quite a lot of linguistic research is really ethically thoroughly uncontentious. By saying that is not so, the statement risks making “ethics for linguists” seem a pointless exercise in box-ticking and distracting attention from the cases where important ethical issues really do arise.

  6. Bjorn Jernudd says:

    The text refers to ‘Each research setting…’ but statements that follow refer also to educational settings. If the latter are to be covered, add ‘and educational [setting]s…’

  7. After reading this draft proposal, I was not convinced that it is worth the effort. It is full of vague expressions (“involve the community”, “promote ethical behavior”, “justice and respect for persons”), and virtually everything it contains goes without saying. And even in this vague form, there are some problems, as has been pointed out by previous posters. So an ethics statement that is fully acceptable to everyone in the field will have to be even more vague and general.

    I don’t see that such a statement is a solution to any problems we have, so I remain to be convinced that it’s a good idea to have an official LSA Ethics Statement at all. Such a statement would be useful if there were well-known, reasonably widespread practices that the majority of the field explicitly wants to dissociate itself from.

    For example, one might object to:
    — conducting missionary work alongside linguistic fieldwork (e.g. if one is atheist)
    — a male linguist interviewing an unmarried female speaker (e.g. if one is a conservative Muslim)
    — a linguist from a rich country working with poor speakers in a poor country (because of the inevitable power asymmetry)

    These are all widespread practices that some linguists probably condemn, but there is no way the LSA could come to a consensus about them at present (though I can imagine that a century from now some of them will be universally rejected, just as we now reject many practices of a century ago).

    So I think it would be more honest to do without such an ethics statement.

  8. Ronnie Wilbur says:

    In 1995 Purdue University sent me and a half dozen other researchers to IU Poynter Center for training in how to teach responsible conduct of research, and I have been doing so every other year since. Our students come from a wide variety of fields, not just linguistics, and when the assignment is to review the statement of responsible research in their fields/professions, it is the linguistics students who are at a loss. I take exception to Martin’s characterization of this effort as vague, given that the terminology comes in large part from existing documents in other fields and from standard curricula in responsible conduct (and for those of us in the US, from federal cases, legislation, and/or funding agencies). The examples he gives of things to which someone might object cover religion, gender, and power structure. But they don’t come close to the appropriate way to keep a field notebook (some fields require everything in ink, signed and dated, and then approved by another person who serves as witness that nothing is falsified; etc.), backup, ownership, attribution, dissemination, collegiality, authorship assignment, acknowledgements vs. authorships, resolving disputes, and other issues that also fall under the wider scope of professional ethics. One of the reasons for my interest is a linguistics case in which what was supposed to be an edited volume with contributed chapters became an authored volume with thanks to the people who would have been chapter authors. I have copies of the original chapters before the book was published. The number of authors hurt by this maneuver is over a dozen (I am not one of them). An ethics statement should help prevent recurrences of such unethical behavior.

  9. Harriet E. Manelis Klein says:

    I reread the draft of the LSA Ethics Statement in connection with revising a paper that I gave a year ago at a session on Applied Linguistic Anthropology at the American Anthropological Association. I realize that the statements about ethical behavior and responsibilities need to be quite general. But, I could not find a place in the draft which would answer the question about ethical behavior when a linguist is responsible simultaneously to the speakers whose language is being studied and an outside agency which pays for the research and gets the results. In particular, my experience in several applied projects has made it clear that linguists need to avoid the use of linguistic knowledge for purposes of interrogation or cultural or religious humiliation.

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