Human rights, language rights and the Northern Territory Government

Rumour has it that the Northern Territory Government is proposing to scrap the one remaining linguist position in the southern part of the Northern Territory. This position has been going since the mid 1970s, and the occupants have worked with Indigenous people and schools to create shared understandings of Indigenous languages, of the needs of school-children for understanding what happens in the classroom, of the needs of Indigenous teachers for support and training. They have produced amazing materials in Indigenous languages for classrooms, curriculum materials and reference documentation, some of which is archived and available in the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages.

Rumour also has it that the reason for scrapping the position is because there is “no need for any linguistic expertise in Central Australia and the Barkly schools”.

But rumour doesn’t have it that the kids have all staged a revolution and started speaking Standard English.

Nor has rumour passed on in whispers evidence that their NAPLAN results have suddenly reached those of middle-class Australian non-Aboriginal children. Nor that their results will get better if their teachers know less about their languages.

And fact, not rumour, indicates that wilful blindness to children’s language needs violates the language rights of indigenous peoples – see the UN’s declaration on the rights of Indigenous people. Articles 14 and 15 are fine statements of language rights, and of the need for states to provide resources to back up the rights.

If rumour is right, then Indigenous children in the Northern Territory are losers again.

Continue reading ‘Human rights, language rights and the Northern Territory Government’ »

David Nathan on EL Publishing’s first month, about Open Access, and being Open about Access

David Nathan writes

EL Publishing is a new online publisher which was launched on 18th July and which will publish a journal, multimedia, and monographs, focussing on documentation and description of endangered languages. EL Publishing has an international editorial board and operates a fully double-blind peer-review process for all submitted materials.

EL Publishing is best known for the journal Language Documentation and Description (LDD) which has been published annually since 2003. Until July 2014, LDD was produced in printed form only, but the launch of EL Publishing saw it become an online and Open Access journal as well. In conjunction with the launch, all 110 previously published papers plus LDD volume 12 (a thematic issue on language documentation and archiving) were released; LDD 12 is the first volume to undergo the full review process.

Access statistics for the first month

In its first month, the EL Publishing website had about 4,000 visits and nearly 15,000 pages were viewed. Site visitors downloaded 3,162 papers – an average of 100 per day, suggesting that the majority of visitors downloaded a paper. On the EL Publishing statistics page, you can see a list of the most-downloaded papers. These were, as one would expect, heavily skewed (seven out of the top ten downloaded papers) to those appearing in the newly released volume (which is also featured on the front page of the website). Excluding these LDD 12 papers, the top ten accessed papers were from volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 11 – an excellent spread indicating that the papers and the topics they address have remained relevant. For the full statistical report, see the EL Publishing statistics page.

On Open Access

Access is a widely-discussed topic at the moment, both from an openness perspective and in relation to data protection and privacy. The openness perspective recognises that much research and other knowledge is publicly funded and/or a public/shared asset. The privacy perspective recognises that individuals have a right to own and control their personal information and performances.

EL Publishing has adopted an Open Access (OA) policy in support of broad access to the results of research across the field. We have embraced OA in its strongest form, currently (but unofficially) known as Platinum OA. Platinum OA means that authors are not forced (unlike in most versions of the ‘Gold model’) to pay the publisher to ensure free access to their work. EL Publishing is proud to join other Platinum OA publishers on languages, including Language Documentation and Conservation, and Language Science Press.

Presumably the category Platinum OA is not officially recognised because it is more genuinely disruptive of established power and commercial paradigms in academic publishing than the widely-advocated ‘Gold’ and ‘Green’ models. Recently, the ‘Gold’ model has come under criticism because of the "many categories of authors likely to be disadvantaged", including those from less wealthy countries, those without appropriate (and wealthy) affiliations, and those without suitable grants or access to funds (which will often mean humanities/social science and early-career researchers and postgraduates). In other words, the model skews publishing towards areas where payment can be more easily raised. A second problem with ‘Gold OA’ , less widely noted but rapidly escalating, is that while it shifts the (often exorbitant) payment burden from libraries and readers to authors/funders, by leaving financial gain in the mix it provides a range of "business opportunities" to a wider and less principled array of web-based entrepreneurs who can exploit academic desperation. Jeffrey Beale lists over 600 of these "predatory publishers" and argues that they corrupt open access. By distilling the OA agenda into 3 ingredients – academics’ need to publish, web dissemination, and financial gain, then sugar-coating these with free access rhetoric – mainstream OA proponents invite such developments and might be throwing many authors to the wolves both financially and academically. Even when run by reputable publishers, ‘Gold’ OA will encourage publishers to find new kinds of enticements to make authors pay ("three for the price of two", or frequent author points, perhaps), which may or may not represent value for authors but maintain publishers’ control over the dissemination process.

So it is worth asking if those who advocate (or enforce) OA are acting responsibly. This question is particularly relevant for language documentation, where virtually every practitioner and archive recognises that that documentation material potentially contains knowledge and performances that are personal, secret, sacred, or even dangerous. Keren Rice (2006), for example, notes:

Studies of a human language … 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 (p. 134)

I suspect that there would likewise be general agreement among field linguists about texts that were given to them – material that individuals or the community desire to have kept private must be kept so (p. 147).

(See also my previous blog post on the topic and this one on ‘Open access and intimate fieldwork‘.)

And it may be a concern that the largest repository of endangered languages documentation, ELAR, is now subject to a funder’s OA policy requiring "free, online, open access" to all to "digital documentation of near-extinct languages … and endangered cultural practices". Ruth Singer notes the following regarding the imposition of a blanket rule for open access:

community members and linguists may not always be in favour [of] this solution. ELAR is currently insisting on this approach for all recipients of its current round of grants. For data that has not yet been recorded, such an approach is possible, yet it may exclude a number of communities from depositing anything and will certainly restrict the kind and amount of linguistic data that is deposited [DN: note that grants are given by ELDP, rather than ELAR] (Singer 2014).

On being Open About Access

Even ignoring the abovementioned academic, financial, methodological and ethical issues, simplistic versions of OA can easily fail to provide effective access to those who are least advantaged (whether authors, researchers, documenters, performers or readers/users). For example, our 12 years of experience with LDD has shown that there is a significant number of people who prefer to receive printed materials (over 2,500 copies of LDD volumes have been sold, and indeed we have already received orders for the printed version of the new LDD 12 via the SOAS online bookstore despite its free availability online). Reasons include lack of access to or skills with computers or internet, remoteness from or unreliability of supporting infrastructures, lack of means of onward distribution to students (e.g. where only photocopying is available), as well as diverse personal styles of reading, learning and curation of knowledge and resources. In other words, in such cases, only printed materials offer any kind of access to knowledge. Five hundred years of book-based practices (and the associated capabilities and infrastructure) cannot be replaced overnight. Print-on-demand services offer one part of loosening monolithic publishers’ control but they still involve costs (which can remain prohibitive, or require credit card transactions which are typically refused from some countries). Thus, several hundred copies of LDD volumes have been directly donated to various departments in African and Asian universities. Donation-funded book distribution offers an appropriate way of providing access in such cases and can be made sustainable through raising financial contributions to support further book printing and postage. This example drawn from LDD experience exposes simplistic OA agendas to the accusation of largely being ethical-flavoured rhetoric to support a shift to electronic dissemination with its very low distribution costs (see also Singer 2014 for the use of OA to reduce workloads).

Further, OA can be used to hide the true cost or value of resources. OA alone is no guarantee of either delivery or efficiency, even with cheap online distribution. If an online OA resource actually receives few or no accesses then its actual marginal cost per usage – for authoring, processing, cataloguing hosting etc. – is very high.

This brings me to the main point of this post. A comprehensive OA policy would not only provide free open access, but also openness about access. If materials are not actually being delivered to those who will most benefit from them, OA might be just a hollow slogan, a sleight of hand to protect invested parties and existing practices, without transparency and accountability for actually providing open access!

Discussing OA problems in an article celebrating one month of successful dissemination of Language Documentation and Description is not a contradiction. Linguists know that languages and their users have mechanisms for managing public vs private information. There is no reason why publishers and archives cannot respect, and indeed support, a diversity of access models to suit the nature of the materials and the needs of knowledge providers. EL Publishing values being transparent about the actual rates of access/downloads of its academic papers (just as ELAR was transparent about restrictions on access to protected materials and the process of negotiating access to them). Ideally we would also like to measure and report on the qualitative value of materials accessed by users, but this is a relatively unexplored territory.

David Nathan thanks Peter Austin and Jane Simpson for helpful comments on this post.

Note: the views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of EL Publishing.


Beale, Jeffrey. nd. Scholarly Open Access: Critical analysis of scholarly open-access publishing. Blogging website and resources. [accessed 3 Sept 2014]

Rice, Keren. 2006. Ethical Issues in Fieldwork: An overview. In Journal of Academic Ethics (2006)
4: 123-155

Singer 2014. Sharing the load? Problems with the "lone depositor" model for the archiving of materials in endangered language archives. Blog post at Endangered Languages and Cultures blog, 6th August 2014.

Sharing the load? Problems with the ‘lone depositor’ model for the archiving of materials in endangered language archives

Ruth Singer recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Traditionally collections in endangered languages archives are identified with a single depositor. This depositor is typically a researcher, who is not a member of the community in which the recordings were made. This depositor decides on access restrictions to the materials, ideally in consultation with the community. There are a number of quite separate problems with this position, for those who manage archives and for those who find themselves in the position of lone depositor. In this era of collaborative fieldwork, we can also ask whether the lone depositor model is the best one for communities who speak endangered languages. One suggestion is to make collections open access so that the depositor does not need to be contacted. Another suggestion is to name a number of depositors for each collection, so that no single person has sole responsibility. In this LIP we will discuss potential solutions to the problems of the lone depositor model in the light of participants experiences as depositors and archivists.

On the 14th of March 2014, we held a LIP discussing one solution to this problem of the lone depositor. It is possible to remove some of the responsibilities of the depositor by the archive insisting that all or most of the collection is open access. This means that the depositor need not be contacted in order to obtain permission to access materials in that collection. This lightens the workload for both archive managers and the depositor. It also makes it much faster and easier for the general public and the community of speakers to access the collection. However, community members and linguists may not always be in favour this solution. ELAR is currently insisting on this approach for all recipients of its current round of grants. For data that has not yet been recorded, such an approach is possible, yet it may exclude a number of communities from depositing anything and will certainly restrict the kind and amount of linguistic data that is deposited.

Other issues come into play when we are dealing with data that has already been recorded. Much linguistic data was recorded before the advent of digital archives. In many cases depositors now have to decide whether the permissions given for access to the recordings in the past can be extended to allow online access to digital recordings. It is not always possible to consult the original speakers. The speakers on the recordings may have died or the depositor may have moved fieldsites and not have the opportunity to return. This places a responsibility on the depositor to make a decision. In this session a good suggestion was the idea of depositing the consent forms that were obtained for a recording in the archive too. We discussed the way that depositors have to continue to communicate with community members and sometimes, go against the original wishers of the individual who made the recording after they have died.

A participant discussed a quandry they have – a deceased speaker didn’t want any community members to access her recordings, but did give researchers permission to use them. The descendants of this speaker now wish to access the recordings – what should the depositor do? One suggestion was to follow the wishes of the descendants, over the wishes of the deceased speaker. Another idea was to put a moratoriam of 20 years on the recordings.

In response to the blog of the March 14th LIP on open access, an issue mentioned to me by a number of archivists is that they often cannot contact depositors. If a collection’s access restrictions require contacting a lone depositor this renders the entire collection closed. The lack of communication may be because the depositor fails to respond to emails, is dead or in some way incapacitated. A number of the new linguistic data archives are large and international. This makes them quite different to the national and regional archives also used by linguists. Archivists of national and regional archives can maintain close ties to networks of researchers and communities in their area. However, managers of international archives cannot be expected to be connected to the vast networks of linguists that work in each area around the world. However these networks can be used to help archivists get in touch with a linguist, after that linguist changes institution, email address or leaves academia.  It is also much harder for international archives to communicate directly with the relevant community of speakers, as archivists may not have the local knowledge to work out the best way communicate with people living in a remote area. They may not share a common language the community of speakers and may lack cultural understanding about how authority for recordings are handled in the community.  These are some reasons why, despite the problems, linguists are often the point of contact for archives, rather than the community of speakers.

One solution suggested at the March 2014 Linguistics in the Pub is for multiple people to share responsibility for a collection, referred to as ‘stewardship’ by those who manage responsibiltiies for open source software. The joint depositors could share the responsibility using a consensus model. Or the person who might have been the ‘lone depositor’ can be at the top of a hierarchy of responsibilities. If the highest ranked depositor is not contactable, the next in a chain can be contacted, etc.  Or responsibilities could be organised according to expertise, musicologists for music recordings, linguists for elicitation data, etc. The essential requirement for the depositiors in the group would be that they have some understanding of the context in which the recordings were made. Ideally through having made some of the recordings in the collection and having worked with the community for an extended period of time but if not, through having worked in similar situations and understanding potential issues that might arise. We discussed this at LIP and some of the linguists had already used this strategy, with a particular researcher the ‘head’ depositor and others to be contacted if the ‘head’ researcher could not be contacted. This may not completely solve all archivists problems, as it means there are in fact potentially more depositors to communicate with but communicating with depositors is always going to be a large part of the work in running an archive.

[Update: The new ELDP new grantees contract requires depositors to appoint a delegate, who will take responsibility for their collection, if the depositor cannot be contacted]

Another strategy which would greatly help where lone depositors become uncontactable would be to make the informal networks of linguists and other researchers who work with communities in the same region more visible. If I can’t get in touch with an Australianist for example, I know their close colleagues and can contact them to find out if they are overseas or in the field. One of the local archivists I spoke to mentioned that a particular linguist was terminally ill and not able to discuss access to her collections, so access to those collections was not possible. The archivists were aware of this so although it was a problem, it was not a mystery why she was not contactable. Similarly in a local context, such as amongst Australianists, there are often key individuals, like the linguist David Nash (ANU) who maintains extensive networks with other Australianists, and if all else fails can always be relied on to track down a difficult-to-find linguist.  The ‘social network’ aspect of the ELAR archive seemed to build on these existing networks to some extent – it is not clear how much this aspect of the interface has been used, or how long it will persist.

As always when discussions of ethics come up there were many individual issues discussed:

  • Parents give permission for us to make recordings of children – what happens when they are adults, should I seek permission again?
  • Young women traditionally participate in ceremonies topless – should I keep access to these recordings restricted?
  • What to do if a naked child wanders past the video camera partway through the recording? – pixellating, was suggested as a solution, it is apparently becoming easier
  • Metadata makes it easier to search for recordings of people by name – and this might make online bullying easier – should I use pseudonyms?

As always we also discussed how archiving can be very time-consuming, stressful and thankless (one participant had just archived a few decades of work). How can we make the job easier so more people archive? One participant suggested selective archiving –do we really need to archive everything? It was suggested that just a sample of some texts that can be open access is the best collection. And other stuff such as elicitation will eventually be thrown out as the researcher’s hard drive gets to full. Personally I think unless the data is obviously rubbish could never possibly be useful to anyone, better to archive it if possible. But there are signs that funds are drying up for digital archives and as a consequence, some are getting more fussy.  So researchers who want to keep everything may have to find their own secure backed up storage for data.

So the idea of joint stewardship for collections does have some benefits compared to the lone depositor model.  It offers alternative points of contact for archives – but of course does not solve all our problems!

Playing texts and media—EOPAS again

While I obviously like EOPAS as a model for corpus presentation (see the earlier blog post about it here), I found a renewed enthusiasm for it today as I was checking the meaning of a word in a text I was translating from South Efate. The word lunak does not appear in any of my notes nor in the dictionary, but appears a few times in a story told by the late Kalsarap Namaf. I wrote to Joel Kalpram, who is from Erakor village and speaks the language, and asked him if he knew the word.

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What flows from ngaka-rna : how naming books spread a Dieri word

Coining a new name from a word taken from an Australian language often has complex implications, even if the naming agency is oblivious to them. When the name is for a place, a suburb or a street or a park, the official approval involves the relevant local government body. Two writers went into some of the issues a few years ago:

  • Tony Birch (2010 [1992]) sees the application of indigenous names to ‘houses, streets, suburbs and whole cities’ as ‘an exercise in cultural appropriation’. He draws a distinction between the restoration of indigenous placenames (such as Gariwerd ~ Grampians in western Victoria), and the fresh application to the built environment of a word imported from some Australian language.
  • Sam Furphy (2002) earlier discussed the role of what he dubbed ‘naming books’: popular twentieth century booklets of lists of ‘Aboriginal words’ such as Endacott (1923), Thorpe (1927), Kenyon (1930), Cooper (1952), which, for all the expressed good intentions of their compilers, have contributed to a homogenised perception of Australian languages: ‘The earliest popular naming books … make virtually no reference to the variety of languages spoken by the indigenous people of Australia, such that an uninformed reader could be forgiven for believing that there was only one Aboriginal language.’ (Furphy 2002:62) ‘Naming books simplify and romanticise Aboriginal words and remove them from their cultural and linguistic context.’ (Furphy 2002:68)

I’ve recently come upon an example which illustrates a combination of both concerns: one where official placenaming has drawn on the notorious naming booklets. Continue reading ‘What flows from ngaka-rna : how naming books spread a Dieri word’ »

Hurry again – Groote Eylandt linguist position


Anindilyakwa Services Aboriginal Corporation (ASAC) is located on Groote Eylandt, situated on the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria, is a newly established entity with the core objective to relive the poverty, improve the well-being, and promote the community development of the Anindilyakwa people.
The Linguistics Centre is currently responsible for effectively promoting and fostering Anindilyakwa language and culture through the provision of services for the benefit of indigenous communities of the Groote Archipelago.

Reporting to the Cultural Centres Project Manager, this project position is responsible for assessing the current linguistics operations and advising on the strategic direction of the Linguistics Centre into the future, in collaboration with the Cultural Centres, and to provide a strategic plan and further operational plan, detailing the future of linguistics within the Groote Archipelago. This is a great opportunity to work in a vibrant and complex linguistic and cultural environment.
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Hurry! Job as linguist in Barkly and Alice regions of Northern Territory – deadline extended to Monday 16 June

Short-term job – forwarded by Susan Moore – for more information contact her; tel: (08) 89511662 e:

Northern Territory Department of Education
Job Title: Senior Language Resource Officer
Designation: Senior Professional 1
Work Unit: School Education South
Position Number: 19164
Responsible To: Manager Learning and Performance

Primary Objective
Support the delivery of vernacular and English language programs in the context of Indigenous Languages and Cultures Programs and Indigenous education as appropriate to the region.
Continue reading ‘Hurry! Job as linguist in Barkly and Alice regions of Northern Territory – deadline extended to Monday 16 June’ »

Crowd Sourcing: LIP discussion

Lauren Gawne recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

The topic of crowd sourcing is one that relates to many industries, and almost all participants in this month’s LIP have had some experience of crowd-sourced projects from the perspective of being part of the crowd. In this discussion though, we looked at the topic of crowd-sourcing specifically within the domain of endangered language documentation. This topic has two related, but distinct, facets. The first is the sourcing of funding from the crowd and the second is the sourcing of labour. We discussed both topics, and the benefits and down-sides we saw arising from each.

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Language documentation index

The map below is built on information produced by a group of linguists working in Vanuatu. It is a sample documentation index that provides a visualisation of what is known about each language. Note that this is not a language vitality index of the kind outlined in Harmon and Loh (2010). Leaving aside thorny questions of what constitutes a language and language name (see Good and Cysouw 2013) and choosing to use a given set of language names (that is not limited to ISO-639-3), this exercise produced a map of the languages of Vanuatu, with each language assigned an index number on a 21 point scale assigning 1-5 points for each of four categories: Grammar; Lexicon; Texts; Media corpus. The icons are colour-coded (white = 0; red = 1-5; purple = 6-10; yellow = 11-15; green =16-20). 54 languages in this list have a zero rating, indicating that virtually nothing is known about those languages.

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Somali phone dictionary

On June 13th we Arnold Zable will launch a Somali-English Dictionary app for both Android and iOS platforms, using the successful Ma! Iwaidja dictionary model. Opening screen of the Somali dictionary appThis is the product of a collaboration between the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne and Burji Arts, a Melbourne-based Somali arts and cultural organisation. The app contains some 26,000 Somali words and English equivalents with audio for selected items, so users can hear words or phrases. This app will have the capability of accepting input from users who can contribute items and suggest alternate pronunciations.

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