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!