Incentives for publishing text corpora and multimedia documents: About a recent discussion on the Tibeto-Burman list

In-depth language documentation is clearly a priority duty for linguists of our generation. This is what will remain as our most important legacy. It is also a major driving force for real advances in linguistics, as multimedia digital databases open up a tremendous potential for testing linguistic analyses and building computer models: a huge space opens up once we have a reliable, high-quality empirical basis for our studies.

This point has been made eloquently in various forums; it can now be considered a rather uncontroversial point of view. Realizations tend to lag behind somewhat, though. In addition to personal conviction, institutional recognition is required for academics to invest as much time as they should (and in many cases would like to) into the time-consuming tasks of preparing data for long-term preservation, online circulation, and further computer processing. There has been a vivid discussion about publications and publication venues on the Internet list “Issues and Announcements Related to Tibeto-Burman Linguistics” lately (Tibeto-Burman internet domain). Stephen Morey pointed out that:

“Here in Australia, the Australian Linguistics Society has set up a subcommittee to work out ways by which text corpora – annotated, analysed and curated – can be assessed and counted as research output just as articles in journals are. This follows on the recognition of the scholarly merit of Language Documentation by the Linguistics Society of America in 2010.
Once academics can get credit for this kind of work, we’ll be able to put more time into it and this will be of benefit to communities in the long run as well.”

This was a response to Guillaume’s suggestion: “I think that our community should value more the production of dictionaries and text collections including translations in the local national languages, not just in English (or even only in the local languages, without English), even if this kind of publication never get cited. Citation-based evaluation of academic productivity has a highly detrimental effect on the field, and evaluators should really make a special case for non-English publications intended for speakers of the endangered languages.”

To me, the exchanges over the Tibeto-Burman list conveyed a keen sense of the excitement of doing linguistics on under-resourced languages. This is an era for pioneers, and the frontier is… in our own gardens, which we must cultivate, following the motto of the Pangloss Collection! The framework is in place: long-term archiving and stable identifiers; open archives for consultation; CreativeCommons licenses… and it’s now a matter of getting one’s act together. In the long run this is well-invested time and effort, as the hours, days and months of manual weeding, pruning and trimming make for great documents, which always find an appreciative audience at some point.


Alexis Michaud

I'm a linguist specialized in phonetics, focusing on un(der-)documented languages.

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