The majority of experimental studies in linguistics, psychology, and the social sciences involve participants who are undergraduate students in research-active universities or children of educated families in societies that are WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic; see Henrichs et al. 2010). This leads to claims about universals of human language and behaviour that are not based on an appropriate empirical basis. It also violates the Principle of Justice as many populations are excluded from such studies and their benefits, for instance the development of appropriate materials for teaching or speech and language therapy. Hence, more and more experimental linguists have started to study previously under-researched languages and populations; and we are providing resources and information to support such projects (https://experimentalfieldlinguistics.wordpress.com/).
These projects pose a broad range of ethical challenges. Some of them are challenges that any “traditional” linguistic fieldworker has to face, for instance avoiding coercion and guaranteeing informed consent when dealing with communities that are poor and characterised by low levels of education. However, the introduction of experimental methods into fieldwork contexts also gives rise to new ethical problems. In particular, we will discuss ethical issues that arise when standardized tests of performance (e.g. IQ-tests or tests of working memory) are carried out in small, close-knit communities where native speakers from the same community may become involved in the analysis of such data. We will also discuss (i) problems caused by data sharing in cross-linguistic and cross-cultural studies and (ii) conflicts that can occur when inter-disciplinary studies require ethical approval from boards with members from different disciplines (e.g. medical sciences, linguistics, psychology, and anthropology).
Keywords: linguistics, justice, psycholinguistics, experiments, ethics