Basic Principles of Research Ethics in SIL Fieldwork

The statement below articulates SIL International’s commitment to ethical research principles. SIL affirms and has benefited from ethics statements of the Linguistic Society of America, the American Anthropological Association, the Society for Ethnomusicology, and the American Folklore Society, as well as the United Nations Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Persons.

SIL believes that all people have dignity inherent in being human, and any research involving human subjects must place its highest priority on this value. Therefore SIL conducts its language and culture research with a strong commitment to specific research principles.

Respect for human dignity recognizes the freedom of choice and honors expected confidentiality. It prohibits treating people merely as data sources or coercing cooperation or decisions. Free and informed consent should be obtained from all research participants. Particular care should be taken to safeguard the rights of those who may be especially vulnerable to exploitation. Concern for justice and inclusiveness requires that individuals and communities be treated with equity. Researchers should consider potential harm that might be done by the research, and seek ways to eliminate or reduce it to a minimum. In addition, the researcher should recognize the role of local and higher authorities in decision making.

SIL International affirms the following statement by the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), which outlines some of the complexities involved in linguistic research. (See

Human Subjects in Linguistic Research (Statement from LSA)

Studies of a human language often depend upon a continuing relation with speakers of the language. Such a relation comes to be defined as much by the speakers as by the linguist. Their patterns of life govern when work can be done. Their expectations, and those of their community, shape what is to become the results of the work. Understanding of the nature of linguistic inquiry grows in the course of the relationship. Sometimes lifelong friendships are established.

Such work must be conducted with respect for those who participate, with sensitivity as to their well being, and with concern for consequences of publication or sharing of results.

Certain considerations may make the study of a language different from much research in the sciences and social sciences. One asks many questions in discovering the features of the language, of a kind the collaborator learns to expect and even anticipate. They are seldom of a sort that can be disturbing or injurious. Moreover, fruitful work may depend upon the linguist learning and observing the norms of politeness and friendship expected by those with whom he or she is talking. Those who participate in such a work often do so with pride in their command of their language and may wish to be known for their contribution. Not to disclose their names would do them a disservice. Native Americans sometimes justly criticize earlier work with their language for not having adequately proclaimed the contributions of the Native Americans themselves. Fairness to speakers of a language is very much a matter of understanding their viewpoint, and what is appropriate in one situation may not be in another.

Such considerations make it difficult to apply general rules in a mechanical way.