SLLS Ethics Statement for Sign Language Research (for discussion)


General ethical guidelines have already been established for researchers in linguistics and cover most of the general issues required for sign language research (see LSA Ethics Statement). This statement does not intend to duplicate such documents but aims rather at establishing a general framework that supplements such general ethical guidelines by including more specific ethical considerations concerning signers and Deaf communities. Sign language users and communities have been traditionally marginalized and researchers must always be aware that this might result in power inequalities between sign language consultants and researchers.

Sign language research, though, comes in many guises and takes place in many different situations. In addition, linguistic research on sign languages is undertaken from a variety of subdisciplines with specific methods and goals. This document provides general guidance that should be considered and adapted to every particular research situation. More stringent ethical requirements not addressed here need to be created, for instance, for research with children as in sign language acquisition research (though see here for some ethics issues in archiving sign language acquisition data), in work on village sign languages, emerging sign languages or undocumented sign languages, or in work on language or cognitive impairments in signers.

1. Responsibility to Deaf individuals

Research participants that act as consultants share their knowledge and other aspects of their lives with the researcher and this aspect requires careful consideration of issues of privacy. Sign linguists, whether Deaf or hearing, must also take into account the extra unavoidable dimension of videorecording that makes it impossible to detach the data from the personal identity of the research particpant. The rights and wishes of signers with regards to such recordings must be respected at all times. To this end, the researcher must comply with the following basic requirements:

  • Researchers should strive to train Deaf research participants as assistants, research peers, and leaders on research projects.
  • The researcher must explain, in a simple, accessible way,  the general goals of the intended research  before data collection begins (and, when appropriate, the most specific goals after the data collection is completed). If the researcher is not proficient enough in the sign language of the consultant, s/he must ask for linguistic mediation by another researcher or consultant who is proficient in that language or by a professional interpreter as a last resort.
  • Before starting to work, the researcher should ask for the informed consent of the consultant, either in video version in the relevant sign language or in written form in the ambient spoken language. The second option is dependent on the level of literacy of the consultant in the ambient spoken language, but checking for this creates an asymmetric relation at the start, so the choices should be offered as totally equivalent. Informed consent should not be seen as a formality, but as a way to make the consultant aware of all the implications of providing data, of being video recorded, and (when applicable) of the long-term archiving and sharing of the obtained data as well as of the implications of research itself. To this end, the informed consent must be explicit about the setup, duration and number of research sessions, the eventual use and storage of the data once recorded, the possibility of the data being further examined by other researchers on the team, to be included in publications or in presentations at research events, and to be incorporated into data repositories which may have restricted or open access. Special discussion of open access Internet dissemination is important: protection of the identity of the signer in a specific video is impossible to guarantee in that case. To preserve the confidentiality of the signer, s/he must also be asked whether s/he accepts to have his/her metadata associated to the data files, as well as to be acknowledged by name for his/her contribution to the research. Informed consent is a condition to get the research approved by an ethical committee and such an approval is  required by journals as well.
  • Researchers should always evaluate whether remuneration or compensation of some sort for the time and effort of the consultant is adequate.
  • Research results and, where possible, copies of the data itself should always be made accessible to the consultants who participated in the research.

2. Responsibility to Deaf communities

To conduct sign language research, scholars must first and foremost respect the wishes of the signing community, and be careful to involve members of the Deaf community in appropriate ways. In the ideal situation, researchers are themselves Deaf; hearing researchers should work with Deaf researchers when possible, including co-authorship as appropriate. Linguists should not always take for granted that their work is by definition beneficial for the communities of signers and should try to explain in a clear fashion what the possible benefit can be of linguistic research on the target sign language. Visibility and recognition of sign languages as natural human languages should be one of the basic targets for the linguistic research undertaken with a Deaf community.

The researcher should be acquainted with the cultural norms and values of the Deaf community in question and respect them, especially if s/he is not a member of that community. To the extent that the community has organized representative organisations, the linguist should agree with them access, archiving and distribution of data and research results from the very start of the project.

Respect for individual linguistic variation within the Deaf community is important, given the diverse linguistic biographies of the individuals that form it.

3. Responsibility to scholarship and to the public

The sign language linguistics community should support the efforts of Deaf people to become sign language linguists.

Sign linguists should make an effort to make research results on sign languages visible in academia in general and in the specific subfields where they are directly relevant.

Sign linguists must also strive to make their research results available to the broader, non-specialized audience, with the ultimate aim to generalize knowledge about sign languages and signers and to remove the traditional prejudices about them.


Suggested reading

Austin, P. K. 2010. Communities, ethics and rights in language documentation. In P. K. Austin (ed.), Language documentation and description (Vol. 7), 34-54. London: SOAS University of London.

Baker, A. (2012). Ethics issues in sign language acquisition data archiving. IPROSLA: Integrating and Publishing Resources of Sign Language Acquisition.

Chelliah,Shobhana L. & Willem J. de Reuse 2011. Handbook of Descriptive Linguistic Fieldwork. Dordrecht: Springer. [Chapter 6: Fieldwork Ethics: The Rights and Responsibilities of the Fieldworker]

Crasborn, O. 2010. What does ‘informed consent’ mean in the Internet age? Publishing sign language corpora as open content. Sign Language Studies 10(1): 276-290.

Dwyer, A. M. 2010. Models of successful collaboration. In L. A. Grenoble & L. N. Furbee (eds.), Language documentation. Practice and values, 193-212. Amsterdam Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Finnish Association of the Deaf. 2015. Chapter 6: Best Practices and Challenges in Sign Language Work – in Working Together: Manual for Sign Language Work within Development Cooperation.

Fischer, Susan. 2009. Sign Language Field Methods: Approaches, Techniques, and Concerns. In Taiwan Sign Language and Beyond. 2009, James H-Y. Tai and Jane Tsay, eds., 1-19. Chia-Vi, Taiwan: The Taiwan Institute for the Humanities, National Chung Cheng University.

Harris, R., Holmes, H. M., & Mertens, D. M. 2009. Research Ethics in Sign Language Communities. Sign Language Studies 9(2): 104-131. [See also authors’ blog:]

LSA Ethics Statement.

Morrow, Virginia. The ethics of social research with children and young people –an overview.

NIH. 2009. Research Involving Individuals with Questionable Capacity to Consent: Points to Consider.

Panda, Sibaji (ed.). 2010. Technology and Ethics in Sign Language Research. Nijmegen: Ishara Press. (DVD)

Rice, Keren. 2012. Ethical Issues in Linguistic Fieldwork. In N. Thieberger, Nicholas, (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Fieldwork, 407-429. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, L. C. 2010. Informed consent among analog people in a digital world. Language & Communication 30(3): 186-191.

Singleton, J.L., Jones, G. and Hanumantha, S. 2012. Deaf Friendly Research? Toward Ethical Practice in Research Involving Deaf Participants. Deaf Studies Digital Journal 3.

Singleton, J. L., Martin, A. J. and Morgan, G. 2015. Ethics, Deaf-Friendly Research, and Good Practice When Studying Sign Languages, in Research Methods in Sign Language Studies: A Practical Guide (eds E. Orfanidou, B. Woll and G. Morgan), John Wiley & Sons,  Ltd, Chichester, UK. doi: 10.1002/9781118346013.ch1.