George van Driem, Professor of Historical Linguistics at the University of Bern, minces no words in condemning the “moral depravity of ethics protocols.” He argues that human subjects rules primarily serve to cover the asses of Western universities while hampering linguists in the field and insulting the people they encounter. Paraphrasing couldn’t do justice to this marvelous essay, so enjoy the block quotations. Better still, read the whole thing.
[George van Driem, “Endangered Language Research and the Moral Depravity of Ethics Protocols,” Language Documentation & Conservation 10 (2016): 243–252, http://hdl.handle.net/10125/24693].
To illustrate the problem, Van Driem offers this horror story:
One American researcher followed the dictates of the ethics protocol of the University of Oregon because the penalty for non-compliance for her would have been nothing less than to forfeit the right to earn a doctoral degree, even though, in the particular case in question, this involved just 400 Bhutanese ’ngütram, which at the time of the affair was less than US$10. The researcher was compelled to go back to a particular Bhutanese village and get a signature from a particular language informant on a receipt for this sum of money. The researcher in question did as she was told in good faith, and consequently the community ostracized her, shunning her on each subsequent visit because she had made them sign a legal document. The people of the language community later explained through intermediaries that they both felt insulted and were also genuinely afraid for having been made to sign a legal document, especially after all the assistance and hospitality which they had extended to the researcher.
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