Chronicle of Higher Education: Researchers Struggle to Secure Data in an Insecure Age

September 17, 2013

Chronicle of Higher Education: Researchers Struggle to Secure Data in an Insecure Age

Hi everyone,  I thought this recent article from the Chronicle would be of interest.  The article points out that most Universities provide inadequate data security for researchers, that most researchers know little about data security, and that IRBs rarely have data security experts on their review teams.  One inexpensive response of IRBs (including our own here at Purdue) is to include a disclaimer in the consent form stating something to the effect that data security systems are not perfect, and that there is a chance of breach of privacy.  My sense is that for many, perhaps most, linguistic studies, such a disclaimer is enough, as long as participants understand the risk.  But what about for studies with highly sensitive data?  Is this issue of concern for the linguistics community?  Just thought I’d throw that out and see what others think.  I realize not everyone has access to the Chronicle.  My apologies to those who are unable to access the link.    Elaine

Robbins Burling “On High Priced Publishers”

April 1, 2013

What follows is a guest post by Robbins Burling, on the timely issue of the ethics of dealing with high-priced publishers.  He is grateful for your comments and feedback.  -Elaine Francis

On High Priced Publishers

I was recently contacted by the linguistics editor of a publisher that is sometimes regarded, as “prestigious” and that I will refer to simply as “Publisher X”. This publisher is well known, both for its stunningly beautiful books and for its outrageous prices. The editor asked me to review a manuscript of a grammar of a language that is spoken near the region of northeastern India where I have done extensive field work.  I have been distressed by the prices that this and similar publishers charge, so I asked the editor what their plans were, should they decide to publish the book, for making it available to speakers of the language.  None of the speakers would be able to pay the list price.  The editor’s answer was soothing but completely non-committal: “One . . . solution would indeed be to liaise with a local publisher in India. Another might be to produce cheap paperbacks.” For several years now, I have heard suggestions from friends of Publisher X that they might arrange ways of making inexpensive copies available to scholars of the region, and to speakers of the languages, but nothing has ever come of such suggestions. I have learned to distrust their vague expressions of hope, so I declined their request to review the manuscript

I know it is possible to publish books that sell for much less than Publisher X charges.  In 2004 I had a 400 page grammar of the Garo language published in Delhi. You are unlikely to have heard of the publisher, but I am pleased to give its name:  Bibliophile South Asia. Today, you can order my book from Amazon for $42 plus postage.  Or, you can order if from Abebooks in India for US$18.84 plus about $9 for postage to the US.  If you live in India your postage will be less, of course.   $18.84 is still a substantial sum for most people in India, but it is not completely out of range. It is also modest enough so that I can be generous about giving copies to my Garo friends.  By comparison, Publisher X has a 900 page book on a Northeast Indian language that Amazon offers for $301.  Calculate the difference in price per page!  I could not find this book on the web site of Abebooks

Colleagues have told me that scholars who are seeking employment or tenure, need to publish with “prestigious” publishers because recruitment and tenure committees will judge such books more favorably.  This may well be true, but if it is, it is a scandal.  Imagine that you hold a book from Publisher X in your left hand and one from Bibliophile South Asia in your right. You want to decide which is the better book, and which author deserves a job offer. The book from BSA is well put together on decent paper, but it cannot be denied that the book from Publisher X has a lush opulence, a sort of high class glamour, that the book from BSA lacks.  But, surely, lush opulence is not what a committee should be looking for. Rather, what they ought to be looking for is the quality of the contents and, indirectly, the quality of writer’s mind. For that, neither the reputation of the publisher nor the opulence of its manufacture is of any importance. We can only judge the books by looking inside. Have we forgotten the proverb that tells us not to judge a book by its cover?

Although we cannot know the quality of a book by the quality of its manufacture, I do think that we can learn something from its price:  In particular, we learn a good deal about the author’s sense of responsibility to the men and women who taught him or her about their language. When writing about people whose nations are poor and who are themselves still poor, I believe that we have an obligation to do whatever we can to make sure that the books we write are as inexpensive as possible.  True, some of what we write is too esoteric and obscure to be of any real interest to the speakers, but that is not true of all of our work, and we might even try harder to write in a way that could be of interest to the people who speak the languages and to whom we owe so much.

The problem of lush books at high prices has a second side.  High book and journal prices are breaking the budgets of university libraries. The worst offenders are commercial publishers of scientific journals, but Publisher X contributes to the budget crunch.  How long will the taxpayers of the put up with it?

I would urge my friends and colleges who are tempted by the likes of Publisher X to find alternative ways to publish their work. I would urge recruitment and promotion committees to remind themselves regularly, that a scholarly book and its author should never be judged by the lushness its printing, but only by its intellectual and scholarly content.  Since private buyers for the books of Publisher X are probably few, I see little need to urge a boycott on private buyers, but I wish University Libraries could impose a boycott without being charged with restraint of trade.

I do suggest to my colleagues that they try to find publishers who will price their books more reasonably than Publisher X.

Robbins Burling

University of Michigan

YouTube videos as language data?

February 13, 2013

Hi everyone. I’m posting on behalf of Lise Dobrin, based on an interesting query from Marianne Mithun regarding the status of language data from the internet. I wonder if anyone has encountered any institutional policies regarding the use of YouTube videos as language data, in cases where the video is freely available with no restrictions. My understanding is that this would not count as human subjects research under the usual IRB guidelines, since there are no interactions or interventions with the people depicted in the video, and since the material is freely available to the public. It might, however, fall under human subjects regulations if the people depicted in the video do not know that the video is up there. Also, regardless of regulations, we were wondering how to determine whether use of such a video for research poses any additional risks to the people depicted in the video. Thanks for your thoughts! Elaine

AAUP proposal for IRB reform: redefining exempt status

September 21, 2012

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recently released a report titled “Regulation of Research on Human Subjects: Academic Freedom and the Institutional Review Board”.  The AAUP’s report is based on an analysis of responses from various professional societies (including LSA) to a July 2011 document released by the Department of Health and Human Services, the ANPRM (advance notice of proposed rule-making), which set out some proposals for IRB reform and asked for feedback. 

Here, I discuss one of the report’s recommendations, which is relevant for linguists, but wasn’t the focus of the LSA’s official response to the ANPRM.  I hope this can start a conversation following up on the earlier (August 2011) discussion on this blog.

The AAUP report recommends that all minimal-risk research on autonomous adults be included in the “exempt” category, not just the short list of procedures (such as survey forms, interviews, and observational research) that is currently included.  This would include much of what currently qualifies for expedited review.  Furthermore, the report proposes that the determination of “exempt” status no longer be subject to IRB review, but rather should be determined by the researchers themselves. 

This is similar to one of the proposals in the ANPRM — a new category of “excused” research to replace the “exempt” category.  This category would similarly expand the scope of the exempt category, but the researcher would still have to “register” their project with the IRB.  The registration forms would then be subject to possible random audit later, but the researcher would be allowed to begin research right away without waiting for approval. 

I think that both proposals would enhance academic freedom and relieve administrative burdens from researchers and IRBs.  Of particular value for linguists is the expansion of the exempt category to include additional types of minimal-risk research.  For example, my own experimental protocols, which consist in adult participants speaking sentences and/or pressing buttons in response to linguistic stimuli, are non-exempt under the current guidelines.  Under either set of revised guidelines, most types of psycholinguistic experiments and other low-risk methods would become exempt.  This would be a welcome change for me, since I would no longer have to wait for approval (which sometimes takes several weeks) every time I need to make a minor change in the protocol.

Would this revised system for exempt research provide adequate protection for participants?  

In a recent email to the Ethics Committee, James Crippen brought up two potential problems regarding the proposed expansion of the exempt category:  (1) how to define low-risk methods for each discipline; and (2) how to take into account subject matter in addition to the actual methods.  

The AAUP solution to both problems is to allow researchers themselves to make those determinations, with the help of a standardized list of exempt methods and the advice of the IRB or a departmental representative as to how discipline-specific methods should fit into the standardized categories.   But does this give too much discretion to researchers? 

I think the idea of having researchers on exempt projects register their projects with the IRB is a good idea, and helps ensure appropriate protection of participants in minimal-risk studies.  Registration of the project forces researchers to explain their procedures and how the rights of participants will be protected (just as in the current system). This would encourage researchers to make a careful, reasoned decision about whether a particular project qualifies as exempt and to seek advice from the IRB or other experts when needed.  I believe that the threat of a random audit would discourage people from inappropriately stretching the definition of exempt status. 

What do you all think?  Do you agree with the proposal to expand the list of exempt categories of research to a larger number of minimal-risk procedures?  Would simple registration of exempt projects be enough to ensure appropriate protection of participants?  If the proposed changes go through, should the LSA provide their own guidelines for how to interpret the new exempt categories with respect to common research protocols in linguistics?

Please post your comments here!

Elaine Francis

Purdue University

Junior Co-Chair, LSA Ethics Committee