Contingency in Conversational Consent and Turbulent Collaborations

Posted confidentially on the author’s behalf by the ethics blog editors

This is the story of how my collaboration with a coauthor collapsed over ethical concerns. Neither of us violated any formal ethical protocols. And yet, our ethical sensibilities were divergent, premised upon different agreements and conversations with members of the community we both work with. The story shows that while taking an open-ended “conversational” rather than “regulatory adherence” approach to ethics might help researchers attend to the contextual specificity of particular ethnographic projects, conversations between co-authors about their respective ethical agreements need to happen early on in a collaboration, and even then might not solve every problem. Which conversations are had, by whom and with whom? How do these conversations change over time? What is left unsaid, and how do such things come to matter when researchers work together?

Early in my research, community leaders explained to me their worries about how my work could lead to harm. Their concerns mostly involved keeping out of the public eye: on at least one occasion, the publication of a news story about their small community had subjected them to a visit by ethno-nationalist vandals. I was urged not to do things that could potentially attract this kind of harassment.

As my research continued, I learned that individuals could differ greatly in their attitudes toward privacy. While preparing to publish my first academic paper, I included information about someone that she objected to. Fortunately, we discovered this before I submitted the final version, so I was able to take it out. Since then, I have asked community members to review my manuscripts before I submit them for publication. Interestingly, the community leader I am closest to objects to this practice. He thinks that some people have unreasonable privacy concerns and that I give them too much say over my work. Through my experience with these different perspectives over a period of years, I have become highly sensitive to the political nature of privacy concerns and the importance of handling them with care.

I brought this heightened sensitivity to the collaborative writing project that eventually broke down. I noticed that my colleague had included photographs of people in the community in some of his prior work. When I mentioned this to the people featured, they seemed unpleasantly surprised to learn that their photos had been used in this way. I knew my colleague had positive relationships in the community, so after bringing the matter to his attention I let it drop.

But in the context of our co-authorship, my concerns resurfaced when he wanted to cite his prior work with the photographs. I worried that readers could follow the citation trail to identifying information of a sort that I had promised to keep private. My colleague resisted removing the citation on the grounds that to do so was improper scholarship. He suggested that we go back to one of the leaders for advice, but for me this was not a solution, given the differences of opinion that I knew existed in the community. Later, my colleague assured me he had signed consent forms to publish the images in question. This surprised me, since it flew in the face of my own agreement with community leaders to keep such information private. I understood later that my colleague and I had begun our work at different times and that the stakes might have been described differently to each of us. Even individual persons’ concerns seemed to have changed over time. But by the point I understood this, my relationship with my collaborator had become too strained to be readily repaired.

What this case of collaboration-gone-awry shows is that the conversations in “conversational ethics” are subject to matters of power, temporality, and happenstance. My colleague and I had divergent ethical dispositions, senses of responsibility, and understandings of risk. In part these emerged out of the different conversations we had had at different times with different community members—and in some cases, even with the same individuals. We had different understandings of who speaks with authority, and even which moments of conversation we should hold ourselves accountable to. Because we simply took for granted that our perspectives would align, we had no consensus on the ethical issues at stake and no clear way to move forward. We were both blindsided and hurt when we found ourselves in a collaboration that could not be sustained.

Speaking with my colleague about our respective ethical assumptions early on in the collaboration might have helped us avoid this outcome. However, before such dialogues can even begin, researchers need to be able to imagine that there are a range of ethical issues, positions, and agreements at stake, even when working within the same community. I hope that sharing this story helps show how this can be so, and motivates others to recognize this difficult but potentially important aspect of professional collaboration.

Problematic Ventures in Interdisciplinary Field Projects

Joseph Brooks

University of California, Santa Barbara


I am a PhD student in Linguistics. Early on in my program, I volunteered to assist at a workshop held at a university in Papua New Guinea that was supposed to teach the local participants how to document their own languages. There I witnessed what I considered to be at best misguided and at worst unethical behavior on the part of the foreign organizers of the workshop vis-à-vis the Papua New Guinean attendees, most of whom were poor villagers. There were many problems with the way in which the workshop was managed. It was conducted in English rather than the language all the participants spoke, Tok Pisin. Instead of making audio recordings, the standard practice in language documentation, participants were directed to produce written texts. This is because the organizers sought to amass a corpus of texts in the participants’ languages that would be useful for machine translation research, and it was claimed this would help document the participants’ languages by automatizing parts of the documentation process. Those who did not speak English were at a disadvantage, and those who were illiterate could hardly participate at all. The participants spent two weeks unwittingly producing data for the organizers’ research in computational linguistics, with no real benefit to themselves. In my conversations with participants as well as faculty at the university, there was a great deal of discontent with the workshop for these and other reasons.

When an article extolling the success of the workshop appeared in the Journal of Language Documentation and Conservation a year later, I was appalled. There was a great chasm between what I had witnessed and how the article represented the workshop. The article described it as an outstanding success that contributed to language preservation and was a real hit with the participants. To my mind, this was dishonest and unethical.

I struggled to decide whether and how to respond. The prospect of a conflict with a senior researcher worried me; nor did I want to earn a reputation for being a troublemaker. I also felt uncomfortable speaking for others. However, I did have a strong sense of how negatively the participants I had interacted with experienced the workshop, and some had even expressed their discontent to me directly. It was my correspondence with a faculty member at the Papua New Guinean university that finally convinced me that I should speak up. When I expressed my moral concerns about speaking on behalf of the villagers I was told that not only was I in the perfect position to do so, but I was in fact the only one who possibly could. The local Papua New Guinean faculty had given up and ceased attending after the first few days of the workshop, whereas I had been there the whole time and was informed enough to comment. The power difference between universities in PNG and those in the United States and Australia surely also played a role. Local faculty were not well positioned to criticize outside researchers who were bringing prestige and funding to their university.

It seemed there were two main avenues I could pursue. One would be to lodge a complaint of ethical misconduct with the sponsors of the research, the funders and/or the PI’s own university. The other would be to submit a response piece to the journal where the article had been published. I sought advice from my friends and family. I consulted with representatives of multiple IRBs. I even met with someone in my town who has a degree in ethics to get another perspective. I discussed the issue with my adviser and with another professor in my department. There was no unanimous support for any course of action. Some strongly supported my intention to respond in some way, while others urged extreme caution lest I irreparably damage my nascent career.

I finally decided to submit a response to the journal. The response genre is one that is established and respected in academia. Whereas an ethics misconduct claim would be behind the scenes and might in the end have no effect, a published response would bring the story to the awareness of the readership of the journal. Submitting a manuscript to review would mean that, if published, my perspective had been vetted by a panel of respected scholars in my field. And submitting a response would require me to forge my concerns into something that was at once scholarly and productive. My response could help positively shape future research, and might even raise the ethical bar for linguists working with marginalized communities. However, I would have to focus my argument and leave out some details I felt were critical. I would have to remove anything that came too close to conjecture, anything I did not directly perceive, or anything that came too close to ad hominem criticism. I would not be able to tell the full story.

In the end, I submitted my response, and it was published. So far, I have received only positive feedback from colleagues. In retrospect, it seems obvious that I should have done exactly what I did, but there were many points along the way where I considered different paths or where I nearly chose inaction over action. I hope that in writing my response as well as this blog post that I have provided the beginnings of a roadmap for other young or unestablished scholars who find themselves in similar difficult positions and are afraid to speak up.

I would like to conclude with a few thoughts about the broader context in which the workshop occurred, and what I think it means for research ethics in interdisciplinary fieldwork. Within linguistics, the last few decades have seen an increased emphasis on the need to document and describe endangered languages because they have a great deal to teach us about things like the range of possible linguistic structures and what happens when languages come into contact. But one effect of this has been to bring endangered languages to the attention of linguists and others who work outside the area of traditional field-based language description, and who see a way to connect themselves to this “hot topic”. The workshop I assisted with in Papua New Guinea was born out of this trend: computational linguists wanted to see if their methods might be used to help speed up the task of documenting endangered languages. This is a reasonable question to want to ask, but in my assessment, the workshop it resulted in was ethically questionable because the organizers were taking an experiment-based approach to research and had little awareness of research as a social process. Those who have been trained in another discipline’s ethics run the risk of engaging in extractive if not exploitative practices when they bring those ethics to local, often marginal, communities. Funders and collaborators have a responsibility to help educate such researchers, so more response articles like mine will not need to be written.

A Case of Collegial Bad Faith

Posted confidentially on the author’s behalf by the ethics blog editors

In this post I describe a situation of collegial bad faith in which I believe four of the ethical guidelines of the AAA were violated: Do no harm; Be open and honest; Weigh competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties; and Maintain respectful and ethical professional relationships.

At the AAA meetings a few years ago, I presented a paper in an organized panel. Two years later, three of the four panel presentations were published in a respected journal. The excluded paper, mine, was a pointed critique of a theoretical position taken by the other three papers from a principled point of view. Thus, a carefully argued dissenting position was barred from published theoretical debate.

I use the word “excluded” advisedly, for I was not notified that any collective publication of the panel papers was underway, nor that mine was unwelcome among them. Immediately after the AAA panel, as the participants discussed the possibility of submitting their papers for publication, I asked whether, in the interest of open debate, they shouldn’t also include my dissenting views. The organizers indicated that my work “didn’t fit,” implying that they were not inclined to include it. But at that time the possibility of publishing the collected papers was only an idea. When I later discovered that the other papers had indeed been published, I submitted my original paper, with critiques of the three now published papers, to another journal. Not only did the other journal accept my paper, but the editor twice invited the authors of the other papers to respond to my critique of their work. Only the moderator of the original panel took the editor up on this invitation and contributed a response to the journal. My ten-point response to the moderator was also published in the same issue, rounding out the debate.

I read this exclusion as cowardly, unprofessional, self-interested, and inimical to the format of open debate by which scientific understanding of the world progresses. In considering ethical standards, it is tempting to look only at violations of commission. But there are also violations of omission, when someone does not do what they should have done in the interest of preventing harm, being open and honest, weighing ethical obligations toward colleagues, and maintaining respectful professional relationships.

In the present case, harm was done when the three panel papers were published together as if they were the only ones that had been presented. To fail to mention the very existence of a pointed dissenting voice was to imply that there was none: a patent untruth. The harm in question is the harm of failing to advance the discipline by allowing for the counter-position of multiple points of view.

The panel organizers were not being open and honest when they failed to notify me that the other papers were being published. Indeed, none of the other authors ever acknowledged that a debate was actually going on, that their position formed part of it, or that they had been invited to defend their work. In my view, they had an ethical obligation to consider the effect their actions had on their colleague’s career, and they impeded the progress of anthropological theory by ignoring my efforts to describe and explain humanness in all its manifestations simply because the approach I took to doing so differed from their own. It is not respectful, or honest, to ignore the constructive, relevant work of a colleague.