Friday, November 18, 2005

UWO in Canada rationalizes language consulting approval

Earlier this year, Claire Bowern over at Anggarrgoon was collecting examples of human subjects policies as they apply to language consultants at various institutions. In that connection, I've been meaning to post this announcement I received from the Canadian Linguistics Association mailing list a couple of weeks ago for consideration:

"The Office of Research Ethics at the University of Western Ontario has recently approved a document giving exemption from ethical review for certain types of language consultation. We invite linguists across Canada to consult this document and to use it as the basis for exemption at their institution if they so choose. This document was written by Claire Gurski, Stephanie Kelly, David Heap and Ileana Paul from the Department of French at UWO and we would like to thank the research group PERL (Practice of Ethics for Research in Linguistics) for their hard work over the summer. A link to the document can be found on the PERL website, as well as other information about our on- going activities: "

The document itself can be downloaded at this link:

In my own capacity as field researcher, I present a two-and a half-page, densely written consent form to my consultants for their signature. This document, based on University of Arizona guidelines and modified by me for my particular research project, was vetted extensively by our Human Subjects office and was a necessary part of getting project approval. Its intention is solely to ensure that my consultants are fully informed of any possible negative effects that the research project might have for them, and to be sure that they are aware that they can withdraw from the project at any time, and of the compensation rates which they are entitled to for participating in the research.

Despite all of these good motivations, however, the document is a problem; it's quite awkward to begin my relationship with my usually elderly, sometimes not-100%-fluent in English consultants by asking them to sign something that looks like a contract and describes every imaginable negative repercussion they might suffer from participating in the research. I am required to (and do) explain the content of the document to my consultants in cases where they don't seem to want to or be able to read it, and I explain that it's required for them to sign it, but it's not the best way to begin a comfortable, friendly relationship that I hope will last over many sessions.

Not only that: I personally feel that the relationship of a linguistic researcher and language consultant is just that -- a professional relationship between an investigator and someone with expert knowledge not available in the population at large (particularly in the case of minority or endangered languages). Treating a language consultant as a 'human subject' seems to me to express exactly the wrong attitude. The consultant is an expert who must be treated with respect and appreciation, more like a teacher than a experimental subject. Although the elicitation of a grammaticality judgment is technically a psychological experiment, it is one which crucially depends on the specialized knowledge of the judger and their willingness to deploy it. The consent form, however, administered as part of the 'human subjects protection program', is a disempowering document, with a 'me investigator, you gerbil' feel to it. We do have to watch out for our gerbils, human and otherwise, but a language consultant is not one and should not be made to feel like one. (This sentiment is much more eloquently expressed in the PERL document linked to above.)

It is of paramount importance as a field researcher to be aware of the ethical ramifications of one's work, and to be sensitive and responsive to the wishes and needs of one's consultants and their larger community of language speakers, most especially in cases of minority and endangered languages. I would consider it very appropriate for our human subjects office to try to find a way to monitor researchers' behavior with respect to these questions. I don't think that consent form model, however, succeeds at this particularly well, and consequently I applaud the UWO decision to exempt language consultant work from this procedure.


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