LINGUIST List 12.1462

Thu May 31 2001

Disc: New: Ethics of Web-based vs Paper Publications

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. lmichael, Re: ROSETTA: FYI: Report on Ethics Wkshp

Message 1: Re: ROSETTA: FYI: Report on Ethics Wkshp

Date: Wed, 30 May 2001 19:32:22 -0500 (CDT)
From: lmichael <>
Subject: Re: ROSETTA: FYI: Report on Ethics Wkshp

Re: Linguist 12.1446

Hi All, 

Doug Whalen's concise summary appears to have led to a little
confusion about the ways in which the participants at the SALSA
colloquium concluded that web- publishing is different from
paper-publishing. I think I might be able to clarify things by adding
a little detail.

Web-publishing is different from paper-based publishing in at least three 
significant ways: 

1. Paper-based publications are typically distributed in a
substantially more restricted manner than web-based ones. In
principle, a web-based publication can be accessed from anywhere with
phone-service, and can be 'distributed' much more rapidly than the
time it takes for a paper-based publication. E.g. I am writing this
email from Pucallpa, a jungle town in Peru, where I can readily access
any web-based publication I want (at 128 kbps!). I cannot, however,
access *any* paper-based publications in anthropology or linguistics.

Ethically, this kind of availablility effects a 'phase transition' in
the way information can circulate. Web-based publications of an
anthropological or linguistic nature cannot achieve the rapid oblivion
and effective secretiveness of a tome lodged on a musty library shelf.
In the organization and execution of the AILLA project
(, for example, we are acutely aware that the web-based
nature of the archive means that we can be held accountable by
indigenous peoples for materials we archive with an ease that would
have been unimaginable prior to the advent of the web. Similarly, the
representations of languages or societies that we archive are much
more readily available to consumers of information, meaning that, for
example, negative representations (and positive ones also!) can
circulate with considerably greater ease.

2. Paper-based publication allows for reproduction of text and
still-images (although this tends to be expensive). Web-based
publication allows for the publication of audio, video, and the
substantially easier publication of images.

The ethical considerations of audio, images, and video are quite
different from that of text alone. The human voice frequently invokes
a sense of proprietariness on the part of the speaker that a
textualized version frequently does not. This even more the case with

Moreover, anonymity can be easily preserved in a text, but becomes
increasingly difficult for audio and video.

Similarly, textual representations allow for kinds of 'editing' that
can be important in making representations more acceptable for
circulation. The 'representational faithfulness' of audio and video
can raise problems by making the editing of embarrassing or even
incriminating material more difficult.

3. Related to the above two points, but somewhat distinct, is the ease
with which one can make perfect copies of digital files which can then
be easily distributed on a large scale. Similarly, digital files can
be altered and reworked in ways that produce files of quality equal to
the original.

This raises serious ethical issues with respect to the intellectual
property rights of the people whose voices and images are recorded.

I think these properties of web-based publication will always
distinguish it quite markedly from paper-based publication.

I hope this helps. 

-Lev Michael
Department of Anthropology and
The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America

> >* "Publishing" on the web is different from publishing on paper. It
> >has different consequences for the authors of the texts and should
> >be treated differently.
> This is true today, but by the end of the decade or sooner it
> wouldn't be true. Building an ethical system upon this first and
> prime point is setting it up for collapse. All publishing is not
> equal, but the grand distinction between web and paper will erode
> quickly.
> --
> --kk
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