by Tony McEnery and Andrew Hardie; published by Cambridge University Press, 2012

Answers to exercises: Chapter Three practical activities

A3-1) What ethical issues arise from the secret recording of spoken conversations?

The single issue of most general relevance here is that of informed consent. Research ethics generally requires that all participants should have given informed consent to participate. In the case of secret recording, not only is there not fully-informed consent, there is not any consent at all! For this sole reason, secret recording would be unlikely to pass ethical scrutiny.

However, while it's easy to state that secret recording simply is unethical, it's also worth understanding the reasons why it is unethical. These include (but are not limited to):

It is worth noting that these considerations are culturally-bound, and shift over time. For instance, even the notion of “informed consent” has shifted over time; the level of information that is typically considered to be necessary has risen sharply over the last several decades. Likewise, social notions of what kind of expectation of privacy individuals are entitled to expect have shifted and will continue to shift. It has been argued, for instance, that the coming technology of ubiquitous computers – where some people will routinely walk around with cameras and microphones recording everything they see and hear, and this data will be stored “in the cloud” and subjected to comprehensive data-mining by corporations and governments – will ultimately mean that no individual can have an expectation of privacy in any context. In such a future world, clearly questions about the ethics of secret recording by corpus-builders would be moot.

These general issues interact with specific issues that arise in particular contexts. So, for example, while there is a general issue of informed consent when recording either adults or children, the inability of children to grant informed consent causes an engagement with third parties, e.g. guardians, when seeking consent in this case.

Even for adult speakers, the issue of informed consent may shift across context. Consider the issue of incidental speakers (i.e. people who are not the direct subjects of recording, but whose voices are simply “overheard” in the recording) and overhearers. In some contexts, this issue just does not arise (e.g. one to one conversation). In others it is inescapable (e.g. talking on the street). In the latter case, all the ethical quandaries must be carefully thought through in advance. For instance, if the ethics policy is to collect signed consent forms from everyone who speaks on the recording, what happens if a recording is later found to contain “overheard” words from someone who did not sign a form? Should such material be absolutely excluded, or should it be judged case-by-case? (After all, there is surely no harm in including a brief utterance like Hello/Excuse me/Thank you from an incidental speaker that just happens to have been caught on tape!)

Overall, then, the contextual and the general issues in recording language data generally interact strongly, meaning that in any given context some general issues may be amplified, others may be downplayed and some unique issues may arise.

Tony McEnery Andrew Hardie

Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University, United Kingdom