publishing fieldwork data

Martin Haspelmath haspelmath at EVA.MPG.DE
Tue Apr 17 07:58:52 UTC 2007

Yes, the issue of data publication also arises in field linguistics in a 
similar way. It has been my impression that since there are many more 
field linguists than typologists, and since there are some large-scale 
initiatives such as DoBeS (Volkswagen Foundation) and ELP (Rausing 
Foundation/SOAS), field linguists have talked much more about these 
issues. At least they have invested a lot of effort into creating 
archives for field data such as AILLA, the DoBeS archive and the ELAR 
(ELP archive).

However, it is unclear to me whether or how these archives address the 
need to fulfill the five traditional roles of paper publication: 
recognition, citability, accessibility, standardization, and 
cross-searchability. It seems that they mostly address a sixth role 
(that I had forgotten to mention in my original posting), permanence 
(though fieldworkers also seem to have discussed the issue of 

So I wonder whether someone can explain why those fieldworkers that do 
care about modern electronic methods (in my perception, the vast 
majority) have not devoted a lot of energy to electronic publication. 
Wouldn't it be great if anyone could read (and even cross-search) all 
those texts that fieldworkers have gathered and annotated? If one could 
refer to these texts as real publications, and if the researchers could 
put them on their CV along with the other publications?


Stuart Robinson wrote:
> Ashild has a good point. Part of the problem is the culture of descriptive
> linguistics, where there is still a fair bit of indifference and even
> hostility towards the technological investment required to support
> sustainable digital fieldwork data. I'm thinking, for example, of Bob
> Dixon's statement on this list when he received the Leonard Bloomfield
> award:
> "A word addressed to junior colleagues who think that it will                                                                                                             
> improve their work to immerse it in the latest electronic technology.                                                                                                     
> Don't. Because it won't. I worked on the Jarawara grammar as I did on                                                                                                     
> previous grammars of Dyirbal, of Yidi?, of Boumaa Fijian (and of                                                                                                          
> English). I used pencil, pen and spiral-bound notebooks, plus a couple of                                                                                                 
> good-quality tape recorders. No video camera (to have employed                                                                                                            
> one would have compromised my role in the community). No lap-top. No                                                                                                      
> shoebox or anything of that nature. And no also grammatical                                                                                                               
> elicitation from the lingua franca."                                                                                                                                      
> This passed without comment when it was posted roughly a year ago, but if
> people are serious about recognizing the value of electronic data, it
> shouldn't have.
> Best,                                                                                                                                                                     
> Stuart Robinson
> On Mon, 16 Apr 2007, Ashild Naess wrote:
>> Dear Martin,
>> the question you raise is just as relevant for descriptive linguistics; 
>> properly annotated corpora of descriptive data require an enormous 
>> amount of analysis work, but are generally not recognised as research 
>> output by those who count such things. Finding ways of having electronic 
>> data sets recognised as publications would be a great benefit to the 
>> whole field.
>> There was some discussion of the question at a recent conference in 
>> Sydney on electronic data collection, annotation and archiving. The 
>> following paper from the conference proceedings may be of interest:
>> Coleman, Ross. 2006. Field, file, data, conference: Towards new modes of 
>> scholarly publication. In Linda Barwick and Nicholas Thieberger (eds): 
>> Sustainable data from digital fieldwork. Sydney: Sydney University 
>> Press. 163-174.
>> The paper is available online at 
>> Best,
>> Ã…shild
>> On 13.04.2007 16:21, Martin Haspelmath wrote:
>>> Dear typologists,
>>> Last week at an informal meeting of the European Typology Network in 
>>> Leipzig, we discussed the issue of publishing typological databases. In 
>>> the past, this was a practical problem, because journals and book 
>>> publishers were reluctant to print many pages of tabular data. The basic 
>>> practical problem has disappeared with modern information technology, 
>>> but many problems remain, and it would be good if typologists made a 
>>> joint effort to address them.
>>> Traditional paper publication simultaneously fulfills at least four 
>>> distinct functions:
>>> (i) giving *recognition* (or even prestige) to a researcher's work, so 
>>> that they can list it on their CV as the visible outcome of their work
>>> (ii) *citability*, i.e. allowing users of published work to build on 
>>> this work without having to vouch for it personally, without having to 
>>> mention all the details, etc.
>>> (iii) *accessibility*, i.e. allowing users in many different places (in 
>>> principle, at any institution devoted to research, and beyond) to access 
>>> the results of the work
>>> (iv) *standardization*, i.e. things like uniform glossing, 
>>> bibliographical references, section organization, or even uniform 
>>> terminology (in some particular context, e.g. an edited volume)
>>> All of these functions are important also for typological databases, but 
>>> while some progress has been made with regard to (iii) (accessibility), 
>>> the other requirements (recognition, citability, and standardization) 
>>> still need a lot of thinking and work on our part. You can access some 
>>> typological databases such as the Surrey morphology databases 
>>> (, the Berlin-Utrecht Reciprocals Survey 
>>> (, the Graz Reduplication 
>>> database (, but these websites 
>>> generally don't say how to cite data from these databases, so they do 
>>> not give enough recognition to the authors.
>>> Standardization has been addressed by the Typological Database System 
>>> (, and this project additionally aims 
>>> for a fifth function, *cross-searchability*, that was not possible with 
>>> traditional paper publication at all.
>>> Another problem is how to divide databases into units: Some databases 
>>> (such as the database of the World Atlas of Language Structures, which 
>>> will become available on the web in 2008) are aggregates of datasets 
>>> contributed by many different authors, which should be citable 
>>> separately. Also for the databases created by a smaller team, it may be 
>>> desirable to specifiy more precisely which author did what. In 
>>> traditional paper publications, we had two kinds of units, articles and 
>>> books, which could be single-authored or multi-authored (occasionally 
>>> with some ranking of the authors). Maybe it would be desirable to allow 
>>> more different units, and more different roles (e.g. content provider 
>>> vs. database designer?).
>>> Any ideas how typologists should go about solving these problems?
>>> Martin

Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at
Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Deutscher Platz 6	
D-04103 Leipzig      
Tel. (MPI) +49-341-3550 307, (priv.) +49-341-980 1616

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