2. Responsibility to those we study.

Linguists have a responsibility to protect and respect their research participants:

  • The aims of an investigation should be communicated as clearly as possible to language consultants.
  • Linguists should determine in advance whether a speaker wishes to remain anonymous or to receive recognition and should comply with those wishes.
  • Linguists should obtain informed consent in advance from those providing data, whether orally or in writing.
  • Linguists should be careful not to coerce anyone to participate in their research and should respect the wishes of research participants to withdraw from a study at any time.
  • Linguists should consider possible repercussions of a study and should discuss these fully with participants and groups likely to be affected.
  • Fair compensation should be given for any assistance.

Appropriate frameworks for interaction with outside researchers vary depending on a community’s particular culture and history. Some communities regard language, oral literature, and other forms of cultural knowledge as valuable intellectual property that should be respected by outsiders. Other communities are eager to share such knowledge in the context of a long-term relationship of reciprocity and exchange. In general linguists should strive to determine what will be constructive for all involved in a research encounter, given the community’s cultural values.

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. In such cases, the researcher is responsible to the community as well as to individual speakers:

The aims of an investigation should be communicated as clearly as possible to the community. Ideally, the community will be involved at an early stage in planning projects and in selecting speakers.

Linguists should determine in advance what types of information may be considered private and should comply with community wishes regarding access, archiving, and distribution of results.

Because language is shared knowledge, it may be appropriate to compensate the community for assistance by making direct payment, helping to facilitate ongoing training, seeking financial support for community efforts in language development, or other means.

33 Responses to 2. Responsibility to those we study.

  1. Peter T. Daniels says:

    Doesn’t “informed consent in advance” rule out many of the investigations that the Labov school has used in it surveys — from the Department Store Survey in the 1960s to the Telephone Operator Survey in the 1990s?

  2. Cecile McKee says:

    Some of the specifics in this section are already required as part of “informed consent” (whether in writing or not). University-based IRBs will follow the same guidelines but vary slightly in interpretation. So, some of these points are redundant with that process. Other details that an IRB will likely require are missing here. For example, more than just “aims” should be revealed to participants (e.g., the study population, the procedures, benefits and risks of participation in the study, details of compensation). These observations make me think it would be helpful to address overlap more directly. Who does this document target? How does it supplement the IRB-related requirements that many linguists already meet? Is the goal, for example, to guide those whose research is not already reviewed by an IRB?

  3. Barbara Partee says:

    Much though not all of this section seems to be directed specifically at fieldwork, but the section isn’t so titled. At the phrase “whether a speaker wishes to remain anonymous” should probably be replaced by “whether a research participant wishes to remain anonymous”. “Speaker” presupposes too much about the specific nature of the research.
    Maybe fieldwork deserves a separate section, so as to be able to clearly address issues like those about the community without suggesting that those issues would apply to subjects in psycholinguistics or phonetics experiments.

  4. Institutional IRB regulations are mentioned in a later section, but maybe they should be mentioned here. Also, look at what they commonly require, and bring this in line with it.

  5. Kyle Gorman says:

    I don’t think informed consent is the right of linguist interviewees, only anonymity. We should simply establish that researchers who use human subjects are compelled to obey the rules of their institutions, which are far more robust than this document.

  6. In my opinion, it might be relevant to include something more about the product of such a study or project. A project which results only in personal and professional gain for the linguist and does nothing for the community isn’t a very ethical one. Perhaps something could be included about offering the results of such projects to the community when completed as tools for their own language preservation and revitalization projects.

  7. David Bowie says:

    Two things:

    1. I realize that this is the Linguistic Society of *America*, but we do have some non-US membership–so we really can’t assume everyone will be under the same IRB regulations as everyone else. (Actually, even limiting things to the US, we can’t make such an assumption–some colleges’ IRBs are more, shall we say, exacting than others’.)

    2. I’m a variationist sociolinguist. In my fieldwork, I very often want to have as little attention paid to speech as possible (sometimes not even letting on that I’m gathering *linguistic* data at all)–so the item reading “The aims of an investigation should be communicated as clearly as possible to language consultants” poses a problem for my research program. Yes, I realize that “as clearly as possible” gives some wiggle room, but it still seems to me that this was written to apply to language documentation work, without completely considering what other sorts of linguistic fieldwork are being conducted.

  8. Jeff Good says:

    Regarding this part (and some associated points after it):

    “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. In such cases, the researcher is responsible to the community as well as to individual speakers.”

    This statement worries me because it seems to presuppose that there is an accepted way to be responsible to and negotiate with the “community”. Even in North America, it does not seem to me that this is straightforward: How do we determine who speaks for a “community”?

    Similarly it is not clear how to apply the statement to various imaginable (and even attested) scenarios. For example, what if a linguist is working with an immigrant to the U.S. who speaks an undescribed language? Does that linguist have to determine what the community attitudes are towards language work within the community before working with that immigrant in an university office?

    Finally–and the trickiest point, I think–what do we do if the community and the individual are in disagreement? That is, what if an individual wants to work with us and refuses to acknowledge the community’s claim to control over the language? Do we take the community’s interests as primary and, thereby, limit the individual’s right to free expression? Or do we work with the individual even if that means alienating the rest of the community?

    Statements like this always sound good on paper, and I think we all agree that we have responsibilities to the various kinds of communities we work with, in addition to individual speakers. But, I wonder if this section actually muddies the waters by raising too many difficult questions about what it means for a “community” to be involved in the work. I personally, would favor ending the official ethics statement with the paragraph preceding the one quoted above, which I think does better justice to the complex issues, and saving the second half or so of this statement as a kind of “annotation” clarifying how to behave in cases where community negotiation is a well-defined process.

  9. Yes, some of us are not at American institutions. In the UK, rules are a bit looser when the experiment is clearly “noninvasive”, so I’d hate to be tied to overly-strict US rules.

    Besides, strict, bureaucratic ethics rules are not in the interests of either the researchers or the volunteers. The essence of research is very simple:

    We will take care not to harm, coerce, significantly endanger, or cause significant distress to the people we study.

    We consider informed consent important, and will seek it whenever practical. Informed consent will always be sought if (1) the linguist will have even apparent authority over the subjects, (2) the linguist will cause the subjects to behave outside the bounds of their normal social interactions, or (3) if there is any risk of danger or distress beyond what is encountered in everyday life.

    And, a section on anonymity, and another section on communities. But, leave all the details to the IRBs!

  10. > Fair compensation should be given for any assistance.

    Ah, cultural differences… Here in the UK, we sometimes need special ethics approval if we pay our subjects. (This applies to NHS ethics committees, for instance.) It is considered that if you are paying them, you are assumed to have more authority over them, and therefore the experiment needs to be looked at more carefully.

    Here, a moral distinction is made between reimbursing a subject’s expenses and paying something beyond expenses.

    (Mind you, if the experiment gets too long or too annoying, people will want to be paid, so it’s a bit tricky…)

  11. Jeff Good says:


    “Linguists should obtain informed consent in advance from those providing data, whether orally or in writing.”

    Other people have made comments about this, too. I’d like to add that, though I do my best to obtain informed consent from my speakers following U.S. law, I have never felt this to be an ethical obligation, only a legal one (though there is, of course, a lot of good ethics bundled into that legal obligation). Maybe, the LSA statement should avoid a legal term like this and simply say something like:

    “Where anonymity of research participants will not be maintained, linguists should strive to ensure that the aims of their research are clearly communicated to participants, including the range of possible uses for the data they collect, and comply with participants’ wishes regarding access, archiving, and distribution to the collected data and associated research results.”

  12. Marc Bolan says:

    This is the most substantive part of the document, and the one where its somewhat specific focus is clearest; it threatens to give a false impression of what it is “we” do. I agree with an earlier poster who says this is mostly about fieldwork. Many linguists do their work primarily in their armchairs and rarely if ever see a human subject, let alone one from a marginalized community: is this an ethical statement for them? Do they need one? (I can imagine they have a secondary ethical responsibility if they take data from a published source, but this should already have been collected according to fieldwork ethics.) Could this not be an ethical statement *for linguists doing fieldwork*, as opposed to *for linguists*? I am not sure I see why a linguist who isn’t doing fieldwork has any particular ethical responsibilities other than those which apply to all professors and have more to do with individual institutions than with the LSA.

  13. Aaron Broadwell says:

    I second Jeff Good’s comments about the problems in the portion where the statement talks about the community. I think if you’re working in the community itself, you should seek permission to be there and do your work. But in this world of immigration, huge numbers of speakers of endangered languages don’t live in their home communities — and in some cases they left to get away from the government of their home community.

    I can also second Jeff’s comment by saying that many Choctaws I have worked with do not care in the least what their tribal government approves or does not approve. If speakers are interested in language work for whatever economic, cultural, religious, or political reasons, I don’t want to tell them that I must have someone else’s permission.

    I don’t want to see anything in the statement that a United States IRB panel might use to justify requiring a governmental or community letter of approval for language work.

  14. Mike Cahill says:

    One potential trap is to regard this section as a legal and detailed set of instructions, rather than a statement of guiding principles. I agree with Greg Kochanski saying “Leave all the details to the IRBs!” We can’t spell out every circumstance and our detailed response to it. Example: payment customs vary, so do we say “fair compensation should be given for any assistance” when someone refuses to accept payment? Or do we say “appropriate compensation”? Or “commensurate with normally appropriate local pay scales”? If we pay more than this, is that “UNfair compensation”? Probably best just to keep it as is. We love words, even those of us who are not semanticians. While there is always room for improvement, the writers have done in general a marvelous job. The challenge for the rest of us is to make suggestions that don’t bog us down, but clearly express general principles. Hope I can stick to that myself…

  15. John Clifton says:

    “Linguists should determine in advance whether a speaker wishes to remain anonymous or to receive recognition and should comply with those wishes.”
    I think it is essential that language consultants be told in advance that they have the right to remain anonymous. But I’ve had situations in which consultants were not sure at the beginning whether they wanted to remain anonymous. In such situations, I’ve let the consultants know in advance that they had the right to remain anonymous (and the right to leave at any time), at the beginning. After the sessions were over, we’ve revisited the anonymity issue – once the consultants knew what information they had given. In my case, they have always decided to be recognized. But they could not make this decision on the basis of an oral description of what was to happen.

  16. Jonathan Bobaljik says:

    I’d also like to second the concerns raised above (Jeff Good, Aaron Broadwell) about the wording on responsibility to the community. I think the AAA statement on ethics: Principles of Professional Responsibility (relevant point pasted below) is a more appropriate statement for a document of this sort. As I read it, that statement holds that it is part of our ethical responsibility to take into consideration the possible ways in which the individual we are working with may have views that are at odds with other members of their community, (and recognize that this makes decisions possibly trickier). But the document does not lay out a commitment to one particular view on the rights of the individual vs. the rights of the/a group, I would guess for reasons similar to those Jeff Good, Aaron Broadwell and others have articulated.

    i. All of the above points should be acted upon in full recognition of the social and cultural pluralism of host societies and the consequent plurality of values, interests and demands in those societies. This diversity complicates choice making in research, but ignoring it leads to irresponsible decisions.

  17. Leoma Gilley says:

    Having worked with numerous language communities who were actively engaged in language development, I found that the ones most willing to give of their time were very committed to not only giving accurate data to a researcher, but also to understanding what the findings of that researcher meant. If the data were shared with them, they felt affirmed and respected. However, in some cases, researchers came, took the data and disappeared. The language community did not benefit from the time and effort they contributed, and they felt the researcher was simply ‘using them’. Therefore, it is important to include some reminders to field researchers that the language community should have reasonable access to the data as well as the final publication.

  18. Kenneth C. Hill says:

    This section definitely needs to be better focused on the kind of investigations being addressed. Much linguistic “field work” consists of simply listening to people talking and paying attention to phonetic or usage details of interest. And often a recollected linguistic detail becomes of interest long after a social encounter is over. It would be absurd to require the linguist to warn everyone within hearing distance that how they talk may someday contribute to the formulation of some linguistic generalization.

  19. Gregory R. Guy says:

    This statement seems to have been written with only one kind of linguistic research in mind. It ignores the problem of the ‘observer’s paradox’, the methodology of participant/observation, and the paramount importance, at least for sociolinguistic research, of gaining access to the unreflecting vernacular usage of speakers. If we notify speakers that we are studying their language, they almost invariably switch to an extremely careful style, especially if we make the situation so formal as to get a signed consent form from them. It can even do emotional or social harm to the speaker: prescriptive grammar in school has made many people in many societies feel that they don’t speak well; so if you tell them that you are observing their language they immediately become ashamed and embarassed.

    Regarding participant observation, I suggest that a useful paradigm for approaching these issues lies in the concepts of public vs. private information, and reasonable expectations of privacy. Using data drawn from speech in public settings — things overheard, responses to rapid anonymous surveys, etc. — are not an invasion of personal privacy.

    Regarding informed consent, it is essential to the science to avoid distorting the data by the act of observation; much of sociolinguistic methodology is devoted to minimizing this observer effect. It is therefore ethically acceptable to be vague about the nature of the research, if this is necessary to access unmonitored speech and risk to subjects is minimal or nonexistent, (which is almost always the case in linguistic research). For example, in my fieldwork in the Dominican Republic, I told speakers that I taught in a language program in the US and had come to learn about the DR — all true, but nonspecific.

  20. Marianna Di Paolo says:

    I agree with others who have suggested that this section needs to refer linguists to their local IRB or its equivalent, for those outside the U.S. As has already been stated by others, as it now stands it is both redundant and missing some crucial components needed for IRB compliance. It may also be more restrictive that necessary in its approach, as I explain below.

    I’ve worked in several areas of linguistics which involve data-gathering from speakers: child language acquisition, variationist sociolinguistics, and now on Shoshoni. My greatest concern about this section is that it shows a lack of consideration of accepted sociolinguistic methodology, as Peter Daniels, David Bowie and Greg Guy, point out. The methods I have used to minimize the observer’s paradox by being somewhat vague about my research interests have not been viewed as either unethical or illegal by my University’s very restrictive IRB. It has not been difficult to get approval for my sociolinguistics work.

  21. Bjorn Jernudd says:

    I add my concern with “Linguists should consider possible repercussions…”. Either I dismiss this as a fairly vacuous commonplace or I take it seriously, especially as it recommends to “discuss these fully” with, seemingly, a broad group of people surrounding one’s work. Taking it seriously, I object and find this a potentially dangerous recommendation, dangerous to the linguist, because it is impossible to foresee an unknown future (beyond the most trivial, i.e., a disclosure why one is doing this particular research) and this clause invites evaluations of one’s work in that unknown future by ‘others’. This is not good.

  22. Víctor Parra-Guinaldo says:

    One way we ought to protect and respect those who we study, but also to scholarship, which is not mentioned under section 2 of the Ethic Statement, is by preserving their published work whatever the medium, but in particular, books housed in university libraries. I have been appalled by how many students mistreat books by underlying, highlighting, glossing, tearing… do I need to continue? More should be done to prevent this kind of atrocities.

  23. Joseph Stemberger says:

    I would like to point out a link between two statements that occasionally comes up in our IRB here at UBC.

    (1) “Linguists should be careful not to coerce anyone to participate in their research.”
    (2) “Fair compensation should be given for any assistance.”

    Our IRB maintains that recruiting subjects by talking to them directly is a form of coercion, as is paying them for participation. Regarding payment, I have been told by an anthropologist here at UBC that paying participants is unethical, and that anthropologists compensate participants by giving them gifts of sufficient value. But paying people for their time seems to most linguists to be a respectful way to proceed.

    Several members of our department have received initial protests from our IRB for proposing to do these things. But the IRB usually accepts it when informed that the research is taking place in a cultural context where these things are necessary or even required.

    I do not think it would hurt to be more explicit about the ethics of paying individuals who linguists work with.

    And possibly also that direct personal contact when “recruiting subjects” may be the only culturally-appropriate way to proceed in many cases and cannot be viewed as “coercive”.

  24. Rich Rhodes says:

    We are getting to the deeper problem for those of us who work in cross-cultural situations. The much of the discussion here has proceeded as if there were an abstract, universal system of ethics that is adequately encoded in our system of law — if we could only find the right wording to nail it down. But I hardly have to point out to the members of this society that that is patently false. For example, as Joe has just pointed out in regard to ethical compensation, in some cultures it would be unethical to pay language consultants, while in others it would be unethical not to pay them. There is no single answer less abstract than “Do unto others …”, on THEIR terms.

    And it’s even worse. While in a North American context where payment is appropriate, it would be unethical to pay consultants $2 a day. There are plenty of places in the world where, if you paid your consultants $20/hr, the economic distortion in the community would be disastrous.

    The whole idea of IRB’s has always struck me as being culturally imperialistic in many fieldwork contexts. IRB’s, which should serve a necessary function in auditing researchers to insure that they behave ethically, have morphed into legal monstrosities serving largely to protect universities and governments from getting sued. The kind of approach that is proposed in the current version buys into the assumptions that universally applicable ethics can be defined on the legally interpreted ethics of middle-class North American society. I take issue.

    I’d argue that a truly ethical approach would be to define ethical behavior abstractly in terms of the ethics of the society that is hosting the fieldworker or sociolinguist.

    For some kinds of work, in some kinds of societies, a legally “washable” kind of ethics might work fine. But in other societies where the society functions on the basis of morality rather than legality, truly ethical behavior includes a willingness to submit to the host society’s understanding of how one acts.

    The implications are far-reaching. To name one: in face-to-face societies we might well need to calculate from the outset that we are entering into long-term relationships with members of the host community. We generally don’t tell our graduate students that up front, even though we know (at some level) that almost all of the most successful fieldworkers in such societies have long term relationships as crucial part of their career arc.

    A relationship based approach to fieldwork (in those contexts where that is the most ethical approach) also helps resolve issues of linguist’s responsibility to give back to the community. It changes the dynamic if the consequences of one’s actions provide the guarantee of ethical behavior rather than a commitment to a statement of professional ethics.

  25. Here’s a case I found myself in related to the topic of the conflict between what’s perceived by the researcher as constituting fair compensation and what’s perceived by the subject/society as appropriate:


    I hope this contributes to the dialog on this topic by giving an idea of the range of issues that can arise.

  26. I second Ryan Denzer-King’s comment. I would like to see some mention or encouragement, no matter how vague or slight, for linguists to consider working toward language revitalization whenever they are working with an endangered or threatened language. The document of course should not require us all to drop our theoretical work and do 100% revitalization, but I feel that the standard of ethics when working on endangered languages needs to include at least some mention of benefiting the community, not just the science. This of course only applies to those working with such languages.

  27. anonymous says:

    The question of authorship (both in general and with regard to authorship order) seems relevant both here and in the students section (someone posted a comment on that already). In addition, other associations discuss authorship in the context of collaboration between peers (not just students and professors, or researchers and consultants). For example, the American Psychological Association discusses authorship order and conflicts of power in collaborations between colleagues of different seniority. Since collaboration is becoming increasingly common in linguistics, it might be a good idea to address this topic.

  28. ‘those we study’
    i would like to contribute some food for thought about that expression… ‘those’ is in the object position, we make them the ‘object’ of our study… we maybe forget that we work together with them, that we explore their language in collaboration. i would like to see more sensitivity to that partnership between linguists (usually outsiders, but not always) and the speaking community. A bit has been done on participatory (action) research, more in Canada than here in the US, but it is worthwhile, i think, to consider its premises: that we are not the only holders of knowledge, that we are not just the studi-ers and them the studi-ees (or studi-ed), that collaboration on an equal-to-equal basis is a possibility.
    am i preaching? … hmmm … maybe… but let me put it there on the table…

  29. elena benedicto says:

    ‘the right of return’
    one of the, let’s say, complaints i hear in the field is…’they come, they take what they want and they never come back to tell us what they found out’ …
    so, one of our responsibilities: to ‘return’ what we find out in our work… not only a copy of the paper published in the scientific journal, but something that the community can understand in a medium that they can have access to, from radio programs to community meetings, to publications in the local language …

    This would include the materials from fieldmethods classes: the speaker(s) we work with in these classes here in the US has the right to see what has been discovered during that period with the data he or she has provided (it is after all, THEIR data), the conclusions we draw, the papers we write. Just in case someone begins to think ‘isn’t is always the case?’ … a couple of years ago, my university FORBADE me from sharing the students’ papers with the speakers: officials (and some colleagues) claimed that it violated the privacy of the students in the class…
    yes, i know i can include that in the syllabus as part of the conditions of the class, but that’s not the point. the principled point is that the speaker(s) has the right to see what has been done with his/her data.
    independent guidelines from a national professional society like the LSA would have helped in that case.

  30. elena benedicto says:

    the issue of compensation
    completely agree with rich rhodes on the need to define concepts in a culturally relevant way. ‘compensation’ does not need to always be monetary (it is offensive in many cultures), and approach needs to be face-to-face and based on personal knowledge and trust in many societies… just a couple of examples…

  31. elena benedicto says:

    regarding the ‘observer paradox’
    … it’s true… i acknowledge it…
    HOWEVER… when someone presents a paper about linguistic attitudes in a conference and uses data ‘observed’ from a woman in position XYZ in country ZXC (replace variables with real names of country and position) … even if the name of the woman is not mentioned, she can easily be identified; even if she has been informed that the ‘researcher’ is conducting research on the language (without much more detail, because it would jeopardize the validity of the data), i’d say she’d feel entrapped by the comments and the portrayal of her comments and attitudes… i wouldn’t like it if i were her (and i’m not).
    i’m not sure how to solve that… but i’d say, if you can’t tell your ‘conclusions’ to your subjects face-to-face, then don’t do the work… do something else (there’s plenty to do), or do it in another way…

  32. lgonzlez812 says:

    I agree that any investigation should be communicated as clearly as possible to the community. In addition the community should receive respect and consideration from those working with them.
    I further agree that linguists should determine in advance what types of information may be considered private and the information the community is entitled to have access to.
    The aims of an investigation should be communicated as thoroughly as possible to lthe anguage consultants and/or informants, for in this manner suspicion and distrust is avoided.
    On the other hand, linguists should keep, whenever possible, strong bonds with the communities they work with. They should give back to those communities they study, whenever possible, time, teaching, creation of foundations and grants, and, if there happens to be an endangered language involved, the creation of work groups geared towards the saving of the same.

  33. Wayles Browne says:

    I am concerned about another aspect of the relationship between linguists and IRBs. Namely, IRBs (as I understand it) were set up to watch over how researchers treat human (or animal) subjects in biological or psychological experiments. It is indeed necessary to let subjects know what they are getting into when they are e.g. asked to supply samples of blood or hair, or exposed to electric shocks or vaccines. In linguistics, this might apply if I were shining X-rays through a speaker’s jaw to see how he or she articulates vowels and consonants, or asking a listener or reader to wear a helmet to measure eye movements or brain excitation.

    But in most instances the relationship of linguist to speaker of a language is not of this type. It is more like that of pupil (= the linguist) to teacher (= the speaker), or public opinion pollster (= the linguist) to member(s) of the public (= the speaker or speakers), or business owner (= the linguist) to paid or volunteer expert consultant (= the speaker), or reader in a library (= the linguist) to librarian who can give or find the answers to questions (= the speaker). Some of these relations may involve compensation, some not. As long as they don’t involve coercion, none of them should need prior approval by IRBs. I would like to see the LSA come up with a document that linguists can show IRBs to support linguists’ claims that types of research should benefit from blanket exemption from needing IRBs’ approval.

    If any readers of this discussion are in fact experienced IRB members, it would be desirable to hear their perspectives.

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