April 28, 2004

Subjects, collaborators, consultants, ???

Claire at Anggarrgoon writes that

When I haven’t been revising my dissertation, I’ve been filling out a form for getting permission to do research on human subjects (aka going to North Australia over the northern summer to do some fieldwork).

I have all sorts of problems with this type of form. Of course, I see why they’re there, and it’s probably better on the whole that I do fill out one. My problem is not with people checking out my research design (I quite like having someone knowing what I'm up to).

BUT, the biggest problem I have is that I don’t view my “subjects” as “subjects” at all – the speakers I’ll be working with are collaborators in the project.

The terminology here is definitely a problem. One way to look at it is that it's better to treat people as "subjects" than "objects," but as Claire points out, "subject" is not at all the right term for the people that field linguists work with. She prefers "collaborator", but I have to point out that collaborate is a word with two senses, one of which subverts her intentions in a nasty way:

1. To work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort.
2. To cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one's country.

The term informant has similar problems:

1a. One that gives information. b. One who informs against others; an informer.
2. One who furnishes linguistic or cultural information to a researcher.

I usually use the term "language consultant." But Claire puts the consultancy relationship the other way around, and says that she "view[s] the role of a field linguist like me ... as a contractor or consultant, rather than as the head of an project dealing with human experimentation." Fair enough, and sometimes the group concerned actually hires the linguist, which makes this relationship explicit. However, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) will still require the linguist to fill out a human subjects form in this case, I think -- even if it is just an application for exemption. As Claire points out, there is something a bit odd here, since a management professor who consults for an outside company doesn't normally think to ask the local IRB for permission to interview the company executives as "human subjects".

Terminology and social relations aside, there are lots of issues about the interaction between language researchers and the "human subjects" review process managed by Institutional Review Boards at American universities. I'm happy to say that I've had generally excellent experiences with Penn's IRB, but I've also heard some horror stories about misunderstandings that have arisen elsewhere when an IRB that is normally vets clinical research protocols comes up against a linguist or an anthropologist: "But you haven't listed all the specific questions that you plan to ask each subject, in the order that you'll ask them!" or "But you need to promise to destroy all recordings and transcripts after the study is completed!" Some of these stories may even be true.

For those who are interested, here is a summary of "Human Subjects Review for Language Documentation" that I wrote about four years ago. I believe that the main thing that has changed since then is that IRBs are more rigorous in insisting that everyone, including researchers in the social sciences and humantities, needs to go through the review process -- including, for example, people collecting oral histories, journalists and so on. As a result, it has generally become obligatory for even clearly "exempt" research to apply to the IRB to be officially declared exempt. Technically, a linguist who asks acquaintances for grammaticality judgments and publishes the results, without going through the IRB process, is probably in violation of the regulations. This is probably also true for someone who makes use of published corpus data. [Of course, IANAL or even an IRB member, and YMMV].

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 28, 2004 06:24 PM