New Sign Languages Ethics Statement

October 7, 2013

The Sign Language Linguistics Society has released their ethics statement. As noted in the introduction to the statement, the SLLS Ethics Statement particularly addresses ethical concerns for researchers working on Sign Languages and supplements more general ethics statements, such as the LSA’s.

There are several important points in the statement. One is the emphasis on ethical behavior in context; this is timely given Crippen and Robinson’s (2013) complaint that many ethical frameworks don’t allow for individual community needs. Another is the stress on the ethical problems that stem from differential power relationships. Though these inequalities stem from historical situations, they may continue to have effects on contemporary working relationships and research protocols.

The SLLS statement has been ratified and is now active. The Society intends to set up an Ethics committee to follow up on issues arising from the statement, such as research concerns specific to a particular region or group.

Plain English Ethics

June 2, 2009

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!

1. Introduction.

July 28, 2008

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.

2. Responsibility to those we study.

July 28, 2008

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.

3. Responsibility to students.

July 28, 2008

Linguists should minimize harm to students and should model and promote ethical behavior.

Linguists should acknowledge the help of students in research and should compensate students fairly for their assistance.

Sex, marital status, race, ethnic background, social class, political beliefs, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, age, and other such distinctions are irrelevant to academic and scholarly achievement. Linguists and programs should not discriminate based on them.

Sexual liaisons between instructors and students may lead to exploitation and conflicts of interest. Instructors and students should avoid such involvement when an instructor is in any way responsible for a student’s success.

Linguists should ensure that their students receive instruction in the ethical practices appropriate for their field.

4. Responsibility to scholarship.

July 28, 2008
  • Linguists are collectively responsible for the reputation and progress of the discipline and should endeavor to maintain a high degree of professionalism in all aspects of their work.
  • Linguists are subject to the standards of conduct found in other disciplines and should practice honesty (e.g., by not plagiarizing or fabricating data).
  • Those conducting field research should do all they can to preserve opportunities for researchers who may follow them in the field.
  • Linguists should make all reasonable efforts to preserve their original documentary materials.
  • Linguists should strive to follow through on promises made in funded grant proposals and should acknowledge the support of sponsors.

5. Responsibility to the public.

July 28, 2008
  • Linguists have a responsibility to consider the social and political implications of their research.
  • Linguists should make the results of their research available to the general public, and should endeavor to make the empirical bases and limitations of their research comprehensible to nonprofessionals.
  • Where possible, linguists should give consideration to likely misinterpretations of their research findings, anticipate the damage they may cause, and make all reasonable effort to prevent this.

6. Ethical oversight.

July 28, 2008

Attending to pertinent rules, regulations, and procedures (international, national, local, community, institutional, etc.) is an important aspect of planning and carrying out research in line with the guiding ethical principles of beneficence, justice, and respect for persons.

Linguistic research may be subject to the regulations on work with human subjects. In addition, linguists may be subject to institutional and/or local policies that go above and beyond these regulations. In planning their research linguists have an obligation to inform themselves about these regulations and policies.