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.