Council for the Preservation of Anthropological Records
to helping anthropologists, librarians, archivists,
information specialists and others preserve and provide
access to the
records of human diversity and the history of the discipline.
Some Ethical Issues to Consider When Depositing
When you consider depositing your personal records
in an archive, you need to think about a number of ethical and
sensitivity issues before deciding how, what, and where to archive.
The questions raised here follow from some of the principles stated
in the various "Statement(s) on Ethics" issued by anthropological
and related associations.
Who Owns the Data?
Although it is not solely a Western idea to commodify intellectual
as well as tangible property, it seems to be this Western concept
more than any other that guides individual decisions as to what to
do with records that have accumulated from a project or a lifetime.
It also seems to be this Western view of property that is at the root
of present debates about who owns the data and what rights, privileges
and obligations flow there from.
The records held by most anthropologists can be divided into various
types (see CoPAR Bulletin No. 2, Taking Stock of Your Records,
and No. 8, The Special Nature of Linguistic Records), although
depending on the person and his/her career, such divisions are not
always clear cut and easy to make. But, for the most part, when it
comes time to make a decision about records, it is the basic data,
the basic set of descriptive observations, that should come to mind
first when thinking of this disposition and the question of who owns
the materials. For all subfields, it is these data that are of fundamental
use to the people studied, to various publics, and to the future of
the discipline. A fieldworker has ethical obligations to all of these
constituencies in the preservation of a research record [see "Statement(s)
on Ethics," below]. These materials may also most clearly involved
collective property rights ( those of a native community), and potentially
someone elses intellectual property rights (songs, texts, performances,
etc.). The potential rights of others may also be a primary concern
when deciding where to deposit records (local/tribal, public institution,
disciplinary archive, etc.).
Personal and professional papers, on the other hand, more clearly
pertain to an individual field workers intellectual property.
They, more than anything else, are the product of your mental activity:
the synthesis and interpretation of ethnography or prehistory, the
grammar of a language, conclusions about the morphology, demography
or other biological aspects of a population, a plan of action for
a firm or agency, etc. Here considerations for preservation are more
with the future of the discipline in mind, with the potential for
reinterpretation of ones intellectual activities by others,
with the overall history of the field. Obviously the entire record
is of most value when it is kept together, but if priorities must
be set, it would seem that the higher good would be served by preserving
that which has the potential to serve the greatest number of individuals
and needs. And that would appear to be the field record. Here it does
not matter whether you are/were a major figure in the discipline or
a person of more modest accomplishments: if you generated data, they
are of value.
Some individuals, perhaps especially ethnographers, worry that the
quality of their data will reflect on them personally that
they will reveal how good they were at the craft. While this is to
some degree true, it is generally recognized that note-taking is partly
a matter of personal style. Some fieldworkers write little, assuming
that memory will help fill in the blanks; others write a great deal,
leaving little to chance or recollection. Some change their style
during a lifetime, moving from one to another and perhaps back again.
Those who read raw field notes may be frustrated by a minimalist approach.
But, depending on the researchers level of knowledge, different
outcomes can be expected. If a researcher truly knows his/her subject
matter, even the most minimal of comments may become highly significant.
Native researchers (as well as others)might be more frustrated by
the lack of attribution of a statement. For them, the validity or
representativeness of a statement comes more often from knowing who
said it than from the statement itself (see Who Controls Access? below).
Lest one think that the problem of who owns the data is solely the
preoccupation of ethnographers, it should be emphasized that the same
concerns apply to other subfields. While it has been more common for
archaeologists to deposit their field records with the collections
made from an excavation, this practice is by no means universal. There
are archaeological collections scattered in museums around the country
that are largely useless because the researcher kept the field notes
as personal property, usually with the ultimate aim of writing up
the site ("someday"), but sometimes also because of concern
that the notes were not good enough full enough, complete enough,
accurate enough, cleanly written. The archaeologist might rationalize
that no one else could make sense out of them; or that others might
misuse them. Regardless of motivation, it can be argued that the notes
are not personal property. They belong with the collections, or in
a repository where there is access to all researchers. Without them,
the data base is incomplete, it can be easily misinterpreted, and
both the record and the discipline suffer.
Similarly, linguists sometimes are minimalists in note-taking, hoping
that backup tape recordings will fill in the gaps (although many of
these never get fully transcribed). They may also change the transcription
systems they use over time, and then worry that this might be misinterpreted
as a failing. Sometimes translations are missing or meager. Yet field
notes, morpheme slips, and untranscribed tape recordings are all of
value, not only to other but also to those whose languages are in
jeopardy (see CoPAR Bulletin 8). Those in other sub-fields can likewise
think of similar situations and uses. Other countries may or may not
have policies guiding ownership of these records. If not, then the
fieldworker falls back on his/her personal code of ethics in discharging
primary obligations (see CoPAR Bulletin 1).
Archivists, in negotiating deeds of gift with donors, generally know
the legal difference between their institution's right to possess
the physical property of records and rights to the intellectual property
thereof. U.S. copyright law, as revised in 1978 and 1980, grants protection
to creators of literary, musical, dramatic, and other categories of
artistic products, as well as computer programs. Copyrights are bundles
of rights provided to individuals for their creation of original materials
that are fixed in tangible form. Knowledge and ideas are not copyrighted,
but what is written on a page is. As a property right, copyright is
intended to provide authors and artists protection with regard to
the results of their creation, limited by the public's right to fair
use. This protection is limited in time, and eventually all works
become part of the public domain. Currently, that protection extends
for the life of the author plus fifty years, but in no case expiring
before the year 2003.
Most donations of personal papers and field notes would be subsumed
under this law by the assumption that the person "authoring"
the materials (published or unpublished) holds the copyright. If that
person does not specifically transfer copyright to the archives in
a deed of gift, those rights are retained ipso facto. Specifically
retaining them is, in fact, one way to protect one's intellectual
property rights. Most archives now request that a transfer of copyright
be made in writing, but some also accept donors' retaining them, within
reason. This does not mean that if another person misuses the archived
materials, there is automatic legal redress for damages. Before any
infringement of copyright can be litigated in civil court for damages,
the original copyright must have been registered with the Copyright
Office before the infraction (see Peterson and Peterson 1985 for details).
When archivists receive copyrights from a donor, they assume that
the individual has the right to them in the first place. For some
kinds of field data, the situation may be ambiguous; examples might
be an audio or video record of a performance, the text of a story,
or a life history. In the future, it may be decided on legal grounds
that in such contexts the fieldworker was indeed only the custodian
of these materials, or else a distinction may be made between the
tape and the transcription, with the researcher becoming the "author"
of the transcription. The question of who owns the data may become
more legal than ethical and will certainly evolve as the courts set
Who Controls Access?
Many anthropologists are concerned about archiving field notes
and personal papers because of the sensitive materials they may contain.
How can subjects (and the fieldworker) be protected? If restricted
access is deemed necessary, who will review the materials and assess
how they can be used, anticipating what uses could bring harm? These
questions are not easy to answer. They involve access to what was
once private but now might become public. Each anthropologist needs
to give careful thought to these issues in light of his/her own materials.
Other sensitive issues, such as family or community secrets, certain
data on religious ceremonies or practices, feelings about sexuality,
etc. should not be made generally accessible without individual or
community permission. The fieldworker, in consultation with individuals
interviewed and/or authorities in the community is a better judge
of sensitive issues than an archivist, and thus decisions should not
be left solely in the archivists hands.
Few ethnographers — but probably many medical anthropologists
— have field notes in which subjects are identified only by
number and not by name. In large communities, such a procedure might
afford good protection. In small communities, however, it probably
would not provide much safety, as everyone would know or could guess
others' identity from a reasonably full cultural account.
Anthropologists who work for federal or state agencies may find that
access to data deposited with the agency is governed by a freedom
of information act. Normally, these acts cover only certain materials
relating to governmental activities, and most carry access exemptions
for such items as medical records, investigative records (which may
include interview data that has been designated as confidential),
and matters involving national security When materials are archived,
some protection of sensitive data can be obtained, but it will not
be complete or permanent. Most archives follow the Joint Statement on Access
to Original Research Materials issued by the American Library
Association and the Society of American Archivists, in which they
pledge to properly care for such materials and provide equal access
to all users unless specifically restricted from doing so. The statement
asserts that "every repository has certain obligations to guard
against unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and to protect confidentially
in its holdings in accordance with law." While recognizing the
donor's right to impose some restrictions on access, it adds that
repositories should discourage donors "from imposing unreasonable
restrictions and should encourage a specific time limitation on such
restrictions as are imposed" (quoted in Peterson and Peterson
1985:98). The easiest restrictions for archivists to administer are
those that close access to all users for a specified time period,
such as twenty-five or fifty years, or until after the death of the
donor. Unreasonable restrictions are those that require archivists
to sort users into categories such as "serious researchers,"
"professionals," "only certain families," or other
ambiguous designations. Most archives are understaffed, and although
researchers file applications identifying themselves and their intended
use of materials, repositories cannot check credentials or police
What is Fair Use?
An issue related to that of who controls access is what might
be the outcome of such access. Individuals archiving records might
be concerned about whether their intellectual property, or the property
for which they are custodians, could be used in unapproved ways. The
question is legitimate and the answer complicated, reflecting in part
archival responsibilities and in part the ethics of the wider community
Within U.S. copyright law, there are certain provisions that govern
what is called "fair use". These mandates recognize the
right of individuals to use a copyrighted work "for purposes
such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple
copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research" (Peterson
and Peterson 1985:82).
Archives are allowed, by an additional section of the Copyright Act
(Section 108), to make copies of materials under the provisions of
fair use. Copies can be made for individuals for their own scholarly
use; an entire work normally cannot be copied unless it is clear that
the archives holds the copyright. Archives generally must give formal
approval for publication of materials if more than ten to fifteen
percent of the content of an item is to be directly quoted. However,
archives can only exercise authority over the quotation of material,
not its intellectual uses.
These provisions govern archives only with regard to making photocopies
for users. Archivists cannot prevent a researcher's copying material
by hand and then using it. They instruct users as to restrictions
of various sorts, including copyright restrictions, as well as notify
them of proper ways to cite the material and normally require researchers
to sign agreements to abide by those restrictions. However, archivists
cannot follow up to ensure that materials were used fairly, nor would
they enter into litigation over such matters unless the case were
clear and damages substantial. At that point, the ethics of the scholar
must take over.
Despite these concerns, archivists report that "Like the purity
of the famous soap, 99.44 percent of all records are open and 99.44
percent of all working relationships between archivists and users
are noncontroversial" (Peterson and Peterson 1985:7). In large
part, then, donors' and native groups' apprehensions about potential
misuse may be unfounded. Careful consideration of the ethical issues
involved in archiving can help to reduce the other half of one percent.
- In planning for the preservation of records, researchers should
take account of their multiple ethical responsibilities —
to the people from whom the records were generated, to the discipline
of anthropology, to other potential users of the records, and to
- Anthropologists should assess the sensitivity of the information
contained in their records and make informed decisions about the
handling of sensitive material after consultation with the individuals
or groups affected and with archivists.
- Anthropologists should familiarize themselves with copyright laws
and with intellectual property issues (CoPAR Bulletin 6).
Peterson, Gary M. and Trudy H. Peterson
1985 Archives and Manuscripts: Law. Basic Manual Series, Society of
American Archivists, Chicago.
Statement(s) on Ethics
Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association
(Also has drafts of SAA, AfAA, NAPA, etc., statements on ethics, as
well as a general report of the American Anthropological Association
on the review of the code. See also Anthropology Newsletter 39(6):19-20
for approved code, AAA, June 1998 and list of additional society addresses
Catherine S. Fowler
Department of Anthropology
University of Nevada, Reno
Reno, NV 89557
Native American Studies
University of California, Davis
Davis, CA 95616
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