Category Archives: ethics

Talk slides

This week I’ve been giving three talks in the Department of Linguistics at UC Berkeley. It’s been a very stimulating week, with lots of good feedback, brainstorming for new directions, and problem troubleshooting. I’ve also met with many of the graduate students (including two who were my students as undergraduates and who worked on the data that led to some of the results presented in the talks) to hear about their work.

I’m posting slides for two of the talks here. On Monday, I gave an overview of the Pama-Nyungan project and talked about how the tree was created, what it implies to take an ‘evolutionary’ view of language (in this framework), and some off-shoots of the project (MondayPhylogenetics powerpoint). On Wednesday, I talked about one further extension, using the tree to investigate the evolution of colo(u)r terminology. (WednesdayColor powerpoint.)

The other talk, on Tuesday, was on using my Bardi corpus to study life-span changes and variation. At the end of the talk when I was chatting, one of the sociolinguists expressed surprise that I hadn’t anonymized the identities of the Bardi speakers. I hadn’t thought about it. As a fieldworker working on Bardi, I did talk about this general point with the people I worked with, and all were keen to be acknowledged for their work on the language, and recognized among the key custodians of their culture. However, with the work on aging and variation, I am no longer talking directly about Bardi as a language, and more about the properties of the speech of individual speakers, and the more I thought about it, the less comfortable I am with putting that up online without talking to Bardi people about it first. It’s not just a matter of anonymizing the slides, because there are so few speakers, anyone who has any of my other Bardi work will be able to easily work out who I’m talking about. There will be a paper (soon I hope) on using forced alignment in field research, so some of the results will be in that paper, probably now along with a discussion of the ethics of same.


New Edition of Linguistic Fieldwork: A Practical Guide.

I’ll be preparing a new edition of my fieldwork book over the next year or so. Minimally, I’ll be corrected a bunch of typos and updating the technology recommendations, though they have not aged as much as I thought they might. I will probably also incorporate some of the material that I have used in my classes alongside the book.

Now is the chance for readers to make suggestions about things they would like to see in the book. There are three comments of that type that have come up a few times. One is from Africanists: Africanists seem to feel that the book is not very applicable to their field situations, but they are usually hard pressed to give specifics about what they don’t like. Given that I’m not an Africanist, it’s hard for me to address this without some indication of what isn’t applicable. I suspect that part of the issue may the focus in the book on ‘small’ languages. It may also have something to do with the emphasis on community consultation (though I also try to make it clear that this is only one model, and one that is not applicable everywhere).

Second is the lack of what we might call ‘typological’ information. I’ve heard from people who were disappointed that the book didn’t cover more about topics like ‘how to discover if your language has ergativity’. I suspect this comment comes from people who combine their field methods classes with a class on typology. I’m not sure that I can do much about this in a book of this length. I don’t like the attitude that there are ‘normal’ constructions and then there are ‘exotic’ constructions like ergativity (which is found is something like 40% of the world’s languages, so while it’s a minority construction, it’s hardly uncommon). But I can provide some more guidance on using questionnaires and designing surveys and experiments.

The last topic is epigraphy, or interpreting old records. The book does have a bit of advice on using old sources, but there is plenty of other material that could be covered here.

Another thing I have in mind is producing some materials for speakers who are working on their own languages; something like ‘how to do linguistic documentation without a linguistics degree’. That would probably not be for this book, however, since the main constituency for this book is field methods classes.

Given that I’ve just come off finishing the Bardi grammar camera-ready copy, there is no way I’ll be spending a lot more time reading my own writing in the near future, but I would like to start thinking about how to proceed. Comments and suggestions from readers would be very welcome – you can leave them in the comments or email me at

Plain language video release form.

I recently prepared this plain language version of Yale’s video release form. Yale requires this from people being recorded as part of colloquium presentations, field methods projects, and other projects, where the videos might end up being released (e.g. published on the departmental web site, or on a project page, or used in research). It’s separate from the informed consent protocol, as a student and I found recently, when we had prepared a plain language consent script, only to find that we were required to use this form with this precise wording. That precise wording, however, clearly wasn’t going to be very useful to the people we were recording (most of whom don’t speak much English), or to our community liaison/translator, who is excellent, but isn’t trained in legal language either. There’s also a fair amount of cultural information bound up in this form that might not be straightforward for someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience with how things work in universities.

The solution was to prepare a parallel version of the form, with the legal wording on one side, and an explanation of what the form is, why it’s needed, and what it means. I’ve attached it here.

You are welcome to use it as a model, or reproduce it. Note that although Yale’s IRB has seen my plain language version and has approved it for this project, it’s not officially endorsed. Also, I’m not a lawyer, so there may be some legal subtleties of the document that I missed. Finally, some of the plain language statements were specific to the project we were working on, and relate to a separate consent form, so they might not hold true for your project.

[link to file is here.]


The Taíno are (not) extinct

I am usually a silent fan of Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog; but a (now not so) recent post spurred me to blogging…*

The cause of the post was a retraction by Nature of a statement that the Taino are now ‘extinct’. Here’s the retraction:

This article originally stated that the Taíno were extinct, which is incorrect. Nature apologizes for the offence caused, and has corrected the text to better explain the research project described.

And here’s the corrected article, whose initial paragraph states

…Today, the genomes of most if not all descendents of Taínos now contain few of the unique markers that characterized their ancestors.

That seems to me to be both more factually correct, and to reflect the difference between genetic labels and cultural ones that goes to the heart of this post.

Pontikos finds that offensive, and calls it “timorous” that science will “acquiesce… to sensitivity in matters ethnic”. The rest of the post gives examples of labels which refer to groups, species, etc which are now uncontroversially “extinct”.

Scientific discourse is full of discourse that is alienating and offensive to indigenous peoples. One that comes to mind immediately is how biological anthropology tends to talk about ‘mating’ or ‘reproduction’ rather than ‘marriage’ in indigenous groups. Jack Ives (U Calgary) has shown that not considering the social dimension of marriage rules and choices has consequences for how those rules play out at a population level. That is, ignoring “marriage” in favour of “mating” leads to bad science, as well as being offensive.

One of the many good things about the internet is that it is making science publishing more accessible to the “subjects” of that research. Some scientists seem to be having a little trouble adjusting to this. Much is predicated on he assumption that ethnographic (and linguistic fieldwork) writing will most probably not be read by the subjects of that work. There are many barriers (both obvious ones and not so obvious ones) – language barriers, educational ones, access ones – even for people brought up as insiders to the system – think of the number of articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the difficulties of getting tenure-track jobs. Increase in access to science is only going to pay off in better research down the track, and if that means not phrasing the results in a way that is offensive to research participants, and that helps us keep in mind that without those research participants, we would know an awful lot less about the diversity of our world, the choice seems obvious.


*Caveat: I haven’t read the 95 comments+ on this post.

The right to enjoy the results of scientific progress

The LSA’s Ethics Committee is currently running a questionnaire in conjunction with the AAAS‘s Science and Human Rights program. The questions are posted at and are aimed at exploring how linguistics can benefit society, what the potential barriers to access to the results of linguistics are, and what implications that has.

I imagine that fieldworkers have a lot to say about this (though the questions don’t just apply to fieldworkers). Please comment on the lsaethics blog! We welcome any comments, answers, or musings on this topic. Readers are also encouraged to write their own submissions to the AAAS.

Human subjects review survey

I am conducting an informal survey on linguists’ (particularly fieldworkers’) experiences with human subjects approval. The survey is very short and is entirely anonymous.

Click here to take survey

Results will be posted here when the survey is completed.

Linguists’ roles in communities

One of the many things I’m doing at the moment is writing a paper on doing experimental work in collaborative fieldwork communities. I wasn’t at the Hawaii endangered language conference but I’ve been hearing rumours that there was a lot of talk which could be said to boil down to “linguists shouldn’t do anything in a community unless they’re invited to”. I’d be interested to hear if that corresponds to other people’s impressions of the sentiment of the meeting, especially if anyone put something like it in a handout.