On Academic Freedom and Ethics Review: Continuing the Conversation

  1. The ‘legal decision’ metaphor prominent in Tsarapatsanis and Aletras (henceforth DT&NA)’s writing (both the paper and the blog post) is an overly restrictive and unhelpful lens with which to consider ethics review. By ‘legal decision metaphor’ I mean such concepts as “allocation of burden of proof”, “decisions”, “deliberation” and even the notion that what ethics committees are primarily doing is “ethically evaluating research”.
  2. Even though “burden of proof” is an unhelpful metaphor, the question of who should be doing the work of exploring the potential societal consequences of work is important. I argue that it belongs with researchers proposing and carrying out work, at least in the first instance, and that part of the purpose of ethical review is to check for (and provide feedback on) this aspect of research. This represents a culture shift in our field, which is why the NAACL 2021 ethics chairs (Karën Fort and myself) took a pedagogical approach.
  3. Ethics review isn’t primarily about determining whether a particular piece of research is ethical (enough) or not. (It is also emphatically not about judging whether researchers are “ethical”.) Bringing ethical considerations in research review (at the publication step or earlier) is not about achieving or requiring some imaginary ideal, but rather about an on-going conversation, in the review process and the published literature, regarding how our research impacts the world.

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Emily M. Bender

Emily M. Bender

Professor, Linguistics, University of Washington// Faculty Director, Professional MS Program in Computational Linguistics (CLMS) faculty.washington.edu/ebender