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From: Peter K. Austin
Department of Linguistics, SOAS
7 June 2009

That's my tabloid journalist headline for what is a serious, some would say momentous, development in the history of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), namely the adoption last month by the Executive Committee of the LSA of an Ethics Statement [.pdf]. Its Ethics Committee has been working on a draft statement for the past two and a half years, and engaged in consultation within the Society.

There is an article dealing with the issue in this week's Inside Higher Ed, but it focuses on what I believe are two less important aspects of thinking about ethical issues in linguistic research, namely what could be paraphrased as "how to stop linguists from screwing things up" and "how to get round the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process".

On the "don't screw things up" front, it quotes Lise Dobrin, Chair of the LSA Ethics Committee, as saying:

"What you want to do is alert researchers to the need to be sensitive. What you don't want to happen is to go through research blindly and cause an uproar and not know that it's happening. The research has to have integrity, but our job is to navigate these issues with compassion. ... linguists should be conscious of all the possible social repercussions of their work and ways that their work is likely to be misinterpreted."

While this is an important dimension of ethics in language research, I would have thought that more significant issues are respect for the people we work with and their direct involvement in and empowerment through negotiations and collaborations about the goals, methods, training, operations, and outcomes of the research project. Protecting ourselves from "making a mess" is only the half of it. (I hasten to point out that Lise may have said all of these things but the journalist chose to pick out just these bits for the audience -- anyone who has been interviewed will know how selective journalists can be.)

On the topic of the IRBs, it quotes Alyson Reed, executive director of the LSA, as saying:

"I think there has been frustration that most IRB's really don't get it when it comes to linguistic research, so this statement is also an educational tool"

This is a particular problem in the US where the IRBs tend to have been influenced by medical research models and hence demand anonymity, destruction of records after the research is completed, etc. Fortunately, we don't have to deal with this kind of structure in the UK (yet), although SOAS has just announced it will be setting up a process and getting serious about research ethics (hopefully it won't turn into a bureaucratic monster). But again, is being able to "educate" IRBs so important in the larger scheme of things when it comes to research ethics?

As the article makes clear, the ethics statement is a first for the LSA, and rather late in the day compared to other social science researchers:

"While anthropologists, psychologists and others have been debating research ethics for years, amid various proposals to amend ethics standards, the discussions have been a bit different at the Linguistic Society of America. The linguistics professors weren't debating changes in an ethics code, but whether to have one in the first place."

This is where my "Australia beats US" comes in. Discussions about research ethics among professional linguists in Australia took place back in the 1980's, and the Australian Linguistic Society (ALS) drew up its Statement on Ethics in 1989. Its guidelines on Linguistic rights of Aboriginal and Islander Communities were established in 1984, exactly 25 years before the LSA! In addition, one of the most powerful documents [.pdf] setting out research ethics guidelines in indigenous studies was published by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in 2000 (at SOAS we consider it so significant that we provide a copy to everyone who attends our training courses).

So, the LSA is catching up, but I personally think that their just released "Ethics Statement" still needs some work. You can comment on it at the LSA Ethics Discussion Blog.


Nice observation, Peter, that the Insider Higher Ed piece depicts ethics as avoiding harm, as opposed to doing good. You are also right in guessing that this framing was brought to the piece by the writer (and is bound to seem natural to most of his readers). It is especially interesting given that one of our key aims in working up the statement was to move the LSA to approach ethics from a more proactive position. Until last month, the only official comment on research ethics offered by the organization was a statement to the effect that IRB rules can be a bad fit for linguistic studies. (Truth be told, they can be a bad fit for all kinds of studies. When I attended the national IRB conference a few years back, it was medical researchers who were complaining the loudest.)

That said, the alternative "do-good" model of research you present frames language research in a particular way that the authors of the statement were being careful to avoid. LSA members are not just documentarians. They are experimentalists, theorists, sociolinguists, etc. Our mandate was to develop a statement that would be relevant to all linguists, regardless of what subfield they identify with, what kind of languages they study, or what methods they use.

Finally, the "backwards" LSA can be seen as progressive in some ways. The American Anthropological Association, which is now in the process of reviewing and revising its own code of ethics (the original form of which was adopted in 1971!), is looking to us for a model of how to productively incorporate member input into the process. So, just as you say, there is room for all of us to grow and improve through conversation with others.

I wonder if one reason for the difference is that minority language documentation has been a bigger part of Australian linguistics than it has of American linguistics (at least since the mid-twentieth century), so that the issues have concerned a larger percentage of the scholarly community. Not that Australians aren't also ethically superior to Americans.

My guess is that it was due to a combination of Australia having a small population and happy chance. That happy chance was the presence in Alice Springs in the early 1980s of Aborigines who openly asserted and defended their rights, linguists who worked with them, and enough people passionate about language to run the annual conference of the Australian Linguistics Society.

But I think we can learn from the concern expressed outside Australia about the roles of ethics committees. They are having a severely inhibiting effect on fieldwork in Australia. Why bother going through the effort of getting ethics clearance, getting rejected, resubmitting it again and again, and having to agree to conditions which will make recording natural speech nearly impossible? Instead, o young linguist, go out and do discourse analysis on published texts in English....

It is sad that journalists are much freer to intrude into people's lives, record them, and publicise facts about them, than researchers are.

My main concern about the IRB/ethics issue is the number of serious ethical problems that aren't addressed because of the perception that ethics = IRB clearance. So the game becomes one of avoiding the IRB altogether, or assuming that someone is behaving ethically if they have ethics clearance.

Jane I've been hearing some things about greater requirements on journalists recently which are good to see. It was in the context of NITV filming kids at a community -- the parents and school made them stop until they explained why they were filming, what they were going to illustrate the story with, and got permission properly from the kids' parents and the principal of the school. Just one incident but hopefully the start of a bit more accountability.

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