Plain English Ethics

The LSA’s ethics committee recently received a request to produce a plain English version of the statement which explains the more technical language for non-native speakers of English. We will be tackling this section by section over the coming weeks.The format will be the same for each post: the statement language will be in italics, and comments on it will be underneath. The comments rephrase the statement and sometimes provide some amplification. Note that this is my [CB’s] interpretation and not that of the committee as a whole.

Here’s the introduction:

1. Introduction.

Linguists work in a variety of settings and approach the study of language from
multiple disciplinary perspectives. Each setting presents its own set of potential
ethical dilemmas.

Linguists do many different things as part of their work. They work in many parts of the world, in many cultures, and with many different people. Linguistics is also very broad; it includes experiments, observation (e.g. taking notes about what people say), asking questions, and other things. Because of this, it is difficult to write down beforehand all the different ways that linguists might need to think about ethics (but there are lots of them).

It is the responsibility of linguists individually and collectively
to anticipate ethical dilemmas and to avoid bringing harm to those with whom they

We need to think about ethics before we start the research, not after or during the research. We need to do this by ourselves (because we know our own research best). We also need to think about these things as a field. We need to do this in order to make sure that people who participate in linguistic research don’t get harmed by it.

Some kinds of linguistic research fall under the purview of formal human subjects
regulations. This document is not meant to replace formal ethics oversight; nor is it
meant to provide an exhaustive code of conduct. Rather, it is meant to provide
linguists working in all subdisciplines with a very general framework for making
ethical choices.

There are laws about how university researchers can do their research. This is very important when the research involves working directly with people (“human subjects”). There are definitions in law about who is a “human subject” (see Tanya’s recent post about this). This ethics document isn’t that type of document, though. We couldn’t cover every possible thing that might happen in linguistic research. Also, this ethics statement isn’t a replacement for your university’s own ethics requirements (that is, even if you follow this ethics guide, your university and country might have other guidelines, requirements, or laws that you also need to think about).

Comments welcome!


3 Responses to Plain English Ethics

  1. James says:

    I think we need to think about ethics before, during, and after the research, not just before. Ethical issues are always there during research, and although they shouldn’t be allowed to paralyze the project they should still be kept in mind at all times.

    There are even ethical issues in research with nonhumans and inanimate objects, even in fields like astrophysics, molecular biology, volcanology, and other such sciences. People working in those fields are usually much less sensitive to ethical problems and I’ve found that they’re often surprised when they discover how important ethics is in the human sciences. The IRB knows this and usually has an attitude where they expect every researcher to try to sweep problems under the rug. Being forthright and explicit about ethical issues comes as a breath of fresh air for them, according to a few IRB members I’ve talked to.

  2. Peter Austin says:

    I am glad to see that you are thinking about this — I pointed out to Claire back in February this year that I found many problems with the way the text in the draft statement was written when I tried to use it in a training course in Japan (where the none of the trainees was a native English speaker). I ended up producing a version that highlighted and commented on the main points of the somewhat complex language in the original.

    Can I suggest you seek advice from some professionals who are experienced in crafting “plain English” for non-native speakers? — descriptive and theoretical linguists may not be the best people to write such text.

  3. Claire says:

    The trouble is this stuff is complex in several different ways; it’s culturally complex (many of these terms, such as “human subject”) are embedded in a cultural research context that makes a simple definition misleading. Plain English statements seem to try to reduce syntactic complexity by leaving out conjunctions and complementisers. I’m not sure that helps learners all that much (it didn’t help my ESL students when I was teaching English). The Aboriginal plain English statements I’ve seen often try to simplify the content, to the extent that it’s either incomprehensible, too general, or too altered in content to be regarded as the same document.

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