IRBs

Here are a couple of thoughts about regulation of research.

Most of the opinion pieces I’ve seen on the status of ethnographic and fieldwork research implies that we should not be subject to IRB regulation. this is true of the savage minds arguments, broadly speaking, and it has certainly come up the other times I have had conversations about this. The argument goes that IRB approval was designed primarily for medical research, and since we face a different set of issues and have the potential to cause much less harm, our work should not be reviewed in the same way (or at all). a variant of this argument involves claiming that this is not research in the legislative sense of the term. This is the argument made by Chris Kelty here.

I think I disagree. while I do agree, of course, that the current IRB set up is not very useful, and that reviewing linguistics protocols as though there were medical research is not likely to lead to be very good reviews, I do not think it is a good idea to try and get ourselves exempt from review entirely. After all, linguistic research does have ethical implications, it has the potential for harm as well as the potential for a lot of good, and the behaviour of linguists in the field also has potential consequences. The behaviour of the linguist can directly affect the possibilities for future research in the area. If the community feels ripped off by linguist, they are much less likely to entertain research requests in future. A good relationship between professional linguist and communities is in everybody’s interest. Part of making sure that that happens is having adequately reviewed research protocols. This is currently not happening, because IRBs are not sufficiently trained in the procedures used in linguistics, but equally will not happen if we try to get ourselves exempted on the grounds that what we do is not “research”. Evaluation protects the researcher as well as the research participants.

I think a couple of things are needed here. One is a set of resources that linguists applying for IRB approval can point to to show that they are following the established procedures of the field. This is currently in progress as part of an LSA subcommittee. My textbook, and Terry Crowley’s textbook (to a certain extent), will be helpful here. Another potential solution to this problem is for regional IRBs which evaluate field proposals specifically. This already happens for some medical fields, in cases where the research is very specific and the IRB at another University has more expertise in this area and is better qualified to judge the efficacy of the proposal. This could be quite useful for linguists. It would make getting approval more time-consuming probably, but it would ensure that there were some consistency in the reviews and that proposals were reviewed by people with expertise in the area.

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5 responses to “IRBs

  1. Hi Claire,
    Well said! Though I dont know much abut proceedures in the USA, it does seem like world wide lingusits need to be re-thinking their relationship and roles in communities (especially of endangered languages). I noticed at LSA this year there was a lot of talk about ‘Best Practise’ for data archiving and recording for linguists- but it seems the less discussed areas of methodology of fieldwork and permissions, copyright and responsilbities of the linguist in the language speaking communities is yet to get that same attention. – Burlanjan

  2. I think this is done at an individual level. I hear a lot of informal talk from people whose research has to be sensitive to it (so that they aren’t kicked out) but yes, perhaps more generally it’d be good to bring this up more. Maybe you and I could organise something at one of the LSAs while you’re in the States? (I’m really sorry we didn’t get more of a chance to talk this year, by the way. “Hello” really wasn’t a good conversation ;) and I’m sorry I had to rush off).

  3. I think it’s interesting that this discussion on IRBs tends to frame itself in comparison or opposition to the medical model. I’m reminded of Crystal’s comment in Language Death that “linguists have never affirmed the equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath. Perhaps they should”. The same book mentions the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights that was produced in Barcelona in 1996. To my shame I had never heard of this declaration. Is it possible that issues of Best Practice, permissions etc might be more easily conceptualised if there was a more fundamental consensus on the overarching responsibilities of linguists generally? In other words “the equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath”? Maybe you guys could draft one up at LSA. Go awn.

  4. Hi Claire,

    (thanks for the congratulations :) I would be interested in getting something going with this, it does seem like a good time to do it ( I hear lots of grad students wondering about it) and it couldn’t be more relevant. There are quite a few different groups with different ideals about ‘ethical’ work in linguistics, but I think it could do with some airing in a more general sense, get it out from behind the closed doors of spervisor to grad student and talk about it professionally. I will see if I can find your email address and be in touch with you!

  5. I think there is a need to discussions on ethics to be more formal and prevalent.

    For me, I went through university with zero mention of ethics and zero training in field methods. I did a whole subject on an endangered/moribund Aboriginal language and no mention of ethics/language ownership was made. I don’t think it’s good enough. So there I was, a uni graduate launching myself into the field with no foundation in fieldwork methodologies or awareness of ethical issues. That shouldn’t really be allowed to happen. Since then, most of the knowledge I’ve picked up in these areas has been self learned and informal … still not an ideal situation. Luckily, I saw that I needed to learn about this stuff, otherwise I could still be doing fieldwork in total ignorance of ethical issues.

    But I don’t think it’s good enough just to say this is learned informally. It needs explicit attention. A lot of universities are doing this, but mine didn’t and probably still doesn’t. Not good enough, I reckon.

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