Academic Research

Over 950 of SIL's workers hold advanced degrees, and many regularly present papers and publish their research.

Through extensive language survey efforts,

SIL is a leader in the identification and documentation of the world's languages. Results of this research are published in Ethnologue: Languages of the World, a comprehensive catalog of the world's 7,000+ living languages.

SIL has over 60,000 resources in its Language and Culture Archives and is adding an average of 1,700 new items annually.  Online, SIL provides citations for 38,200 of these resources and approximately 4,100 of these resources are available for download.  The other resources cited may be available upon request through SIL International Publications.

Basic Principles of Ethical Research in SIL Fieldwork
Policy originally formulated in 2002; last revised in 2009

This statement articulates SIL's principles for conducting research in such a way as to respect those who are involved in that research. 

In formulating this statement we benefited from ethics statements of the Linguistic Society of America, the American Anthropological Association, the Society for Ethnomusicology, and the American Folklore Society, as well as the United Nations Declaration of Rights for Indigenous Persons .

Respect for human dignity – All people have dignity inherent in being human, and research must place the highest value on this. All other principles flow from this. Respect for human dignity implies avoiding treating people merely as data sources, shaming them, or causing them to lose status. It also implies never coercing cooperation or decisions, but always recognizing freedom of choice.

Respect for free and informed consent – Research participants should be informed as to the methodology of the research, what risks may exist, how it will be used, and their rights to limit access to their information by others and to have full access themselves to products of research. They should be given opportunity to enter into or refuse participation at any point with no recrimination. A record of this consent, either on paper or other appropriate media, should be in a form and language that the subject understands, and be permanently archived with SIL.

Respect for vulnerable persons – Care should especially be taken to safeguard the rights of those who may be especially vulnerable to exploitation by virtue of underprivileged economic or social status, age, gender, mental or physical infirmity, or unfamiliarity with the larger world.

Respect for privacy and confidentiality – Data and information given in the expectation of confidentiality should be kept confidential, and rights to privacy should be respected.

Respect for justice and inclusiveness – Individuals and communities must be treated with fairness. The results of research must not unfairly benefit, burden, or exclude some segment of the community. The researcher should not allow the research to be used for commercial exploitation of the research participant or the community

Minimizing harm – A researcher should consider potential harm that might be done by the research, and seek ways to eliminate or reduce it to a minimum, including stoppage of the research.

Respect for community context – The researcher should recognize the role of local or higher authorities in decision making. In consultation with community leadership, ways should be sought to apply the research to benefit maximally the community from which it is drawn.

The value of long-term relations – The longer the contact, the better the chances for mutually beneficial relationships and for building capacity in the local community. For multi-year projects, periodic reviews of research protocols should be conducted, with possible modification of the research.

The following statement by the Linguistic Society of America outlines some of the complexities involved in linguistic research. Based on our experience, SIL International agrees with this statement. 

Human Subjects in Linguistic Research
Studies of a human language often depend upon a continuing relation with speakers of the language. Such a relation comes to be defined as much by the speakers as by the linguist. Their patterns of life govern when work can be done. Their expectations, and those of their community, shape what is to become the results of the work. Understanding of the nature of linguistic inquiry grows in the course of the relationship. Sometimes lifelong friendships are established.

Such work must be conducted with respect for those who participate, with sensitivity as to their well being, and with concern for consequences of publication or sharing of results.

Certain considerations may make the study of a language different from much research in the sciences and social sciences. One asks many questions in discovering the features of the language, of a kind the collaborator learns to expect and even anticipate. They are seldom of a sort that can be disturbing or injurious. Moreover, fruitful work may depend upon the linguist learning and observing the norms of politeness and friendship expected by those with whom he or she is talking. Those who participate in such a work often do so with pride in their command of their language and may wish to be known for their contribution. Not to disclose their names would do them a disservice. Native Americans sometimes justly criticize earlier work with their language for not having adequately proclaimed the contributions of the Native Americans themselves. Fairness to speakers of a language is very much a matter of understanding their viewpoint, and what is appropriate in one situation may not be in another.

Such considerations make it difficult to apply general rules in a mechanical way.

SIL Intellectual Property Policy
Policy originally formulated in 2000; last revised in 2013

Our intellectual property policy is to abide by the following principles:

  • We acknowledge and will respect the Intellectual Property rights of language communities. 
  • We will respect the rights of SIL staff who create Intellectual Property as part of their work with SIL.
  • We will respect the Intellectual Property of others, including partner organizations and other publishers.
  • We will make it clear what Intellectual Property is owned by SIL and ensure that it is stewarded well.
  • We will ensure that the unpublished Works of our staff can be handed on to the language community, to our sponsors, and to the next generation of SIL workers and partners.


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