When Should Linguists Disclose a Conflict?

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Questions about disclosure of possible conflicts of interest don't arise very often in our field. I take that as that as a testament to the economic insignificance of our results. There are plenty of people who have a financial interest in linguistic research, but they rarely have a stake in having it come out one way rather than another, the way a pharmaceutical company does if it can show that drug X is more effective than drug Y. You don’t have to worry about ethical conflicts when the author can be presumed to have an unequivocal interest in doing the science right. They only become important when the author might conceivably have an interest in doing the science wrong.

But these questions can arise when a linguist is engaged to testify as an expert witness in a legal proceding and decides to revisit the issue later in a scholarly talk or publication. In fact it was a disagreement about just such a situation that provided the impetus for a symposium at last January's LSA meeting on "Ethical Issues in Forensic Linguistic Consulting."

The backstory: Some years ago I served (pro bono) as the linguistics expert for a group of Indians who petitioned the Trademark Board to cancel the trademark of the Washington Redskins on the grounds that federal law disallows the registration of marks that are disparaging. I wrote a report arguing that redskin had a long history of use as a derogation, and that it retained those connotations now, as witness the contemporary dictionaries that label the word "offensive slang" and the like.

Ronald Butters of Duke was one of the two linguistic experts engaged by the Redskins organization. He wrote a report arguing that redskin was a neutral, if informal, synonym for Indian that did not have and had never had any disparaging connotations — the dictionary labels, he said, were just capitulations to political correctness.

A year later Professor Butters made the same argument in a talk he delivered at the Dictionary Society of North America, without disclosing that he had been retained by the Redskins in the trademark case, and a while after that he made the same point in a posting to the American Dialect Society list, again without saying anything about his earlier legal engagement.

I posted to the list to suggest that Professor Butters should have mentioned his work for the Redskins when he presented his views on the word. He responded that disclosure "just didn't seem particularly important." His involvement in the Redskins case, he said, was irrelevant to the evaluation of his research, adding later that
"it has always seemed to me that the truth is the truth, regardless of the source." He noted, correctly, that neither the LSA nor any other relevant organization had any rules that required such disclosures. In response, I argued that disclosure was appropriate whenever there might be a presumption that one's views have been influenced by the interest of a client, whether or not there was an explicit disclosure policy — as I put the point in my symposium paper, "policies don’t create practical and/or ethical imperatives about disclosure and conflicts, they just institutionalize and formalize them." Readers with time on their hands can track our conversation here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (Readers who want to know more about the case itself can start with the rulings, discussions, and law review articles here, here, here, here, and here.)

We did agree on one thing, though, which is that these issues deserved a more thorough and thoughtful discussion both among forensic linguists and within the field as a whole.

I dropped the ball after this, but Ron Butters got together with Ed Finegan of USC and organized last year's LSA symposium, with presentations by Butters, Finegan, Gail Stygall and Janet Ainsworth on a variety of ethical issues surrounding linguists' expert work: mine was called "Is it Ever Okay Not to Disclose Work for Hire?"(The symposium was chaired by our own Roger Shuy, who heads up the Big Sky offices of Language Log LLP; he described the panel in a LanguageLog post in October of 2008.) The papers from the panel will appear in a forthcoming number of the International Journal of Speech, Language, and the Law; I recently got back the edited version of mine, and posted it here.

So when is a linguist obliged to disclose a prior expert engagement in reporting research? In the paper, I proposed a "client's interest test": if your views on an issue are the product of work that was undertaken on behalf of a party who will benefit if your opinion is favorable to that party’s interests, then your audience has a right to know that. My sense is that this would probably cover pro bono work as well as work for hire — and in any case, what compelling reason is there not to disclose? (The only exception is when a linguist is asked to testify on the results of research that was undertaken for independent reasons before the legal matter arose — if someone asks John Baugh to testify about his work on accent discrimination, say, he doesn't have to disclose that every time he mentions the subject from then on.)

But do we have to codify this: should linguistics — or more specifically, the LSA, Language, etc. — have a policy on disclosure of conflicts? I had argued in my posts of the ADS list that we should, but I wound up concluding that it wasn't necessary. The question doesn't come up that often, and when it does it can usually be referred to ethical common sense. But I have no doubt that many others would argue that these issues can sometimes be complicated or nonobvious, and that scholars need a standard to point to in cases of disagreement.


  1. John Cowan said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

    ObIrrelevant: I love it when Tony Hillerman (a paleface) portrays Jim Chee (a redskin) looking at a pink-complexioned paleface and wondering "why the white men called Indians redskins" (People of Darkness).

  2. Adrian said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

    testimony? testament?

    GN: right you are.

  3. Chris said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

    Actually, I think there is a legitimate issue here with respect to computational linguistics also and the publishing of research showing that results using methodology A are "better than" results using methodology B, when the authors are involved in a company whose market position depends on promoting method A. This is particularly true of machine learning techniques (the method du jour in CL) pitted against rule based techniques.

    GN: That's a good point. As I noted in the paper, "Of course there are a few areas of linguistics where the lack of disclosure could obviously be important. Technology, for example: if you write a paper for a conference extolling the virtues of LFG-based parsers and you work for a company that makes tools that use those parsers, you’d be best off letting the readers know that."

  4. Josh said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

    There can also be heavy political conflicts of interest. Over here in the American Southwest, the use of Spanish in official places is highly politicized. There are frequent discussions about use of Spanish in public schools, e.g., the relative merits of English immersion-only, dual-language, or ESL programs. If the debate was done strictly in terms of teaching methods and their effects on student performance, then there wouldn't be much issue. The conflict arises around the use of education as a proxy debate for immigration policy in general. Groups with an agenda towards making immigration either easier or harder would have a vested interest in funding research in education that supports their goals in immigration.

    The need for disclosure here would not be limited to subsequent work, as with the legal case you mentioned. Research done on behalf of any political oriented organization would be warranted right from the start.

  5. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

    It's important to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, which alone is a reason for full disclosure of work for hire (or pro bono) that predates related opinions or testimony. But more important is avoiding misleading others through acts of omission. Feigning innocence of a conflict of interest because of supposed immateriality or lack of consequence is disingenuous at best and deceitful at best.

  6. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

    I don't know whether the LSA needs a detailed policy on when and what to disclose, but this statement of Dr. Butters':

    > "it has always seemed to me that the truth is the truth, regardless of the source."

    seems to express the view that disclosure is never necessary. To me this suggests that there does need to be some sort of policy on the subject, even if all it says is, "Disclosure is sometimes necessary."

  7. Mabon said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 12:14 am

    Re: Ran Ari-Gur:
    I, too, was troubled by Dr. Butters' statement "the truth is the truth…", by which he implies that since his statements are purely objective, anyone who sees them as potentially biased (by work he did for hire, for example) is flat out wrong.
    It seems to be far too defensive a statement. Why not disclose? Far better that than having it discovered later on that you weren't really neutral.
    Science may strive for objective fact, but the reality is that sometimes there are personal factors that color our conclusions. (Duh!)
    That would seem to be the case here.

  8. Ron Butters said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 1:06 am

    I am grateful to Geoff for giving the ethics issues this publicity, and I hope that readers will read all of the essays in the forthcoming issue of IJSL&L. As for the specific question of conflict of interest that Geoff raises, I would like to make clear that I have never published an article or book that lacked sufficient disclosure. I am NOT in agreement with him that mentioning in a list-serv discussion issues from a case in which one served as a consultant necessarily requires disclosure (and it was in that context that I argued that "the truth is the truth, regardless of source"). The conference presentation that Geoff mentions took place ten years ago (and was apparently surreptitiously recorded and disseminated without my knowledge or permission–itself an ethical lapse, it seems to me, of a serious nature), and I frankly (if naively) did not consider the disclosure issue at all. At any rate, I owe Geoff thanks for bringing the issue to the attention of the profession. I completely agree that disclosure is an ethical obligation for publications, and that at the very least prudence dictates disclosure even for an oral presentation, even if the authors views the presentation as little more than a work in progress. Disclosure is easy enough, after all, unless one really has something to hide. Geoff's work now makes it impossible to plead "I just didn't think it was important."

  9. Sven said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 2:14 am

    "it has always seemed to me that the truth is the truth, regardless of the source."

    That may well be but finding that truth does in fact depend on the source.

  10. Jonathan D. said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 3:48 am

    In India language is used to divide states up, require money for mother tongue education, etc. A linguist could have a conflict of interest there by stating "truth" that is not the "truth" of those that have political power have used and losing a research visa, funding, etc. It is a touchy thing this thing called language. Even what name does one use to call a language can lead to problems. Where one sits in many debates can help display bias when stating "facts".

  11. Anonymous said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 7:24 am

    What about applied SLA research? There are thousands of professional language teachers (whether they're currently teaching or taking a break to pursue graduate studies) publishing on research related to the usefulness of (various kinds of) classroom exposure in second language or foreign language acquisition.

    Do you guys think that our journals project an accurate picture of the limits to the importance of instruction methods to a learner?

    Is is scientifically reasonable that there be so many (numbingly similar) articles showing small effects of curriculum, compared with those testing socioeconomic, genetic, self-motivational, and other variables?

    As a student (and sometimes teacher) very much interested in SLA and bilingualism for theoretical reasons, I have to say that I'm more that a little suspicious of those around me who aim to be teacher-artisans first and linguistic scientists second.

  12. Tim Grant said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    As a linguist who gives evidence in court fairly frequently I’d agree these issues are enormously important. In the UK system one side or other will commission an expert and pay for the report which, in most criminal cases must be disclosed to the other side. In spite of the fact that the duty of the expert is to the court not the commissioning lawyers, it may be suggested in cross-examination that the side that paid, in some sense, “bought” the opinion rather than the analysis. More than once I’ve been asked in court how much I was paid for my report. I have to say fore-knowledge that this is likely to occur keeps one honest. Professional integrity ought to be enough but in an adversarial system at least, fear of *appearing* conflicted in cross-exam can be an additional check.

  13. Amy Stoller said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 9:19 am

    Speaking as a non-linguist, and as a normal human being in a litigious society, so far as I'm concerned, the only ethical choice is to disclose any possible conflict of interest. That way the waters aren't muddied.

  14. mgh said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    when linguists submit an article to a journal like Science, they fill out a conflict of interest form as do authors in any other field.

    it does not seem burdensome to adopt the same standard for linguistics-focused journals. it may not be necessary — a 2001 study found that fewer than 1% of articles in journals with COI requirements actually declared a conflict — but I don't understand how usually not being necessary is an argument not to do something, if the cost is minimal. A seatbelt is rarely necessary, but it is still a good idea to wear one.

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    I'm used to looking at this from the other end, i.e. when a lawyer retains an academic as an expert what has to be disclosed within the lawsuit about the academic's prior engagements as an expert and the academic's research/publication history more generally? One problem I see with dealing with it from the other perspective (i.e., when should a subsequent article or presentation disclose the prior work as a retained expert) is how tight or loose a standard for relatedness would be used. Suppose the professor here was publishing an article that dealt with whether another word X as applied to another population group Y was derogatory? Should the "redskins" engagement be disclosed? Suppose it's an article that's mostly about another topic altogether, but there's a single somewhat digressive footnote noting that disputes sometimes arise as to whether a particular ethnonym is derogatory, with "redskin" as an example? Disclose? From my side of it, you can avoid similar problems by attaching as an exhibit to the expert's report a CV which, as is typical for academics, goes on for pages and pages listing absolutely every publication the academic was ever associated with, and let your adversaries sort through it to figure out what they should want to care about in terms of degree of similarity to the topic at hand. But presumably academics don't want to have journal articles start with a lengthy footnote that says here are all my litigation engagements in my life to date, draw your own conclusions as to relevance to the subject of this article.

    Maybe the practice of other scholarly communities was addressed by other speakers at the conference (I didn't see it in a quick scan of Prof. Nunberg's piece), but this is not an issue that ought to be unique to linguistic scholarship. I would suggest that if either the LSA or a particular journal wants to take a position on disclosure rules they should see what the existing practice is in another field of scholarship that generates lucrative expert-testimony gigs quite regularly (economics departments and/or perhaps med schools are where I would start) and give serious consideration to just adopting mutatis mutandis whatever solution they've settled or stumbled on rather than think that reinventing the wheel will yield superior results. Indeed, individual linguists wishing to act "ethically" w/o being externally required to follow a particular practice might wish to do the same, at least as a starting point, lest their unmoored ethical intuitions lead them into either overscrupulousness or its opposite.

  16. Mr Punch said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

    This seems to me to be a specialized (and frankly rather academic, in the depreciatory sense) of an issue that has been extensively debated, though hardly resolved) in other fields, notably medical research.

    The "conflict of interest" that is alleged is between what Butters said after working for a certain NFL team and what you think he might have said had he not been paid. But you're probably wrong — he probably believed what he said beforehand, and that's why he got the contract.

    In effect, you're accusing Butters of being utterly venal, on a professional matter — without presenting any actual evidence. Or am I misreading the situation?

  17. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    December 17, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    This year's new FCC regulations concerning blogs and disclosure are, I think, the FCC's first step toward making bloggers and their ilk "play fair" by disclosing one's relationships. (http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2009/dec/06/ftc-to-regulate-blogger-reviews/) These rules will expand to other publishing venues eventually; it couldn't hurt linguistic groups to get ahead of the game and recommend, if not codify, some rules for disclosure.

    @Mr Punch: Geoff isn't calling Butter's research ethics into question, but the idea of the necessity of this type of disclosure, with Mr. Butter as the example that brought the question to light. It isn't a question of whether Butter's research was (dis)colored by his relationship with the Redskins, but of whether he should have disclosed that relationship.

    Even the most honest of us have to abide by the same rules as everyone else. A rule like "you have to disclose conflicts of interest only if those conflicts affect your results" makes no sense.

  18. Claire Bowern said,

    December 20, 2009 @ 8:50 am

    The LSA ethics guidelines* currently don't really deal explicitly with issues like this, although there is some general language under section 4 (responsibilities to scholarship) and section 5 (responsibilities to the public).
    The LSA ethics committee will be having an open meeting at the Baltimore LSA meeting (on Sunday morning) and I'll put this on the agenda for discussion.
    ~Claire (LSA Ethics Committee Chair, 2010)

    *available from http://lsadc.org/info/pdf_files/Ethics_Statement.pdf.

  19. Mr. Rich Gannon said,

    September 22, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    Also as a non linguist I have been able to read this debate from a third party view. I understand the point many of you make with regards to disclosing information of previous clients and research; especially when publishing a text or giving a presentation.
    However, I do see the stand of Dr. Butters. Dr. Butter's work with the Redskins makes him that much more of a reliable source. By him saying "truth is truth", I think he is merely reffering to the reliability of linguistics. The words are what they are and their meanings stay the same no matter how many cases he has. This consistency in meaning does not make Dr. Butters a product of conflict in interest but more of a asset to the conversation.
    A lawyer does not disclose to a judge everytime he works on a traffic case that he has had previous cases identical to it.
    Disclosing prior research can be neccessary in some cases, but not in this case

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