Firebird Foundation For Anthropological Research

Ethical Dilemmas In Providing Public Access
To Oral Literature Documents

Permitting public access of oral literature documents raises critical and complex ethical considerations. It has been the experience of the Firebird Foundation that few communities or individuals fully understand the ramifications of making documents public in a digital age. The consequences of sharing original, often valuable, sacred and proprietary materials with the entire world range from the legal, social, and economic.


Communities and individuals who have lost valuable economic and cultural resources have felt their cultural heritage has been stolen and their social and religious practices violated as a result of allowing their oral literature to become public. There are also examples of the cultural appropriation by outsiders who have found such materials through open access sources.


It is no simple matter to explain the full consequences of making collected documents public to those outside of the current sociocultural context. Yet not sharing some of the most beautiful and important expressions of the human cultural experience with the world would be a great loss to humanity. Furthermore, not to share this oral literature material goes against the values of those who are trying to preserve the artistic and cultural heritage of societies undergoing rapid change.


However, there are consequences and not to acknowledge these is socially naive. It is better to steer a middle course by making public only selected documents. It is critical to always be sensitive to the cultural and social issues in the source community and realize that the consequences of giving permission to share will seldom be fully understood.


There are a myriad of consequences that result from open archiving or guaranteeing public access to documents from respondents. The following are just some examples from the experience of the Firebird Foundation.


  1. Some of the most gorgeous, influential and revealing material will never be presented for documentation for fear the respondent will be punished by the government for revealing behaviors believed prohibited, or for fear the material will be misunderstood, or because it is sacred and making it public will cause a loss of its power.
  2. Making oral literature public through open access can disturb the distributive justice in the source community. If some community members get economic benefit while others do not, it can cause social friction and tension. If any of the sources for oral literature traditionally get paid or compensated for their work within the society, open access undercuts their potential earnings. One of the basic tenants of social research is never to increase the level of social friction, anger, or aggression in a society.
  3. The collecting and documenting of oral literature always involves political action. For example, a respondent may present his or her version of a narrative as a means to justify access to resources as against other claimants. In another instance a respondent may want to record a narrative with skewed data as a way to pay back past insults. There are instances of narratives being fictionally composed to satisfy the researcher’s interests. Making all these documents available without due consideration can result in growing friction in the community, engendering aggression, and contributing to social tensions.
  4. Many societies have strict boundaries around certain forms of texts, performances, and rites. Not every member of a community is allowed to see these or participate in them. There have been instances in which community members, traditionally restricted from viewing sacred material, did so via open access means provided by outside researchers. Because these community members violated a taboo within their own society they were physically assaulted.
  5. International political issues can be involved. For example, narratives of migrations or visiting outsiders across putative boundaries or boundaries yet to be established, have international consequences as these can be used for claiming boundary revisions. Consequently, making publically available stories that could affect international boundaries puts individuals and communities at risk and creates potential conflict on an international scale.

In sum, the Firebird Foundation advocates that only selected material be made public or entered into open archives. All documents should be scrutinized to determine whether making them publically available would in any way harm the local community or any individual. What the Firebird Foundation has done in their Sabah Oral Literature Project is to involve the source community in the discussions about what to make publically available, and, for additional security and respect, what not to make public until 30 or 40 years after it has been collected.


All collectors of oral literature should be fully aware that there has been an upsurge in violence and killings over access to resources. Therefore, blanket open access has the possibility of adding to this violence over tenure to land and other resources.


In the Firebird Fellowship program all oral literature documents are archived permanently with the foundation and not made available to the public without the permission of the original collector.


Finally, the position that all collected documents should be made public suggests a tinge of colonialism. These documents are certainly not the property of the world. They are not the property of the researcher, who is only the trustee of them. They are the intellectual property of the members of the source community. Is it ever possible to get the full and knowledgeable consent of source communities or individuals so that we can ethically share their material with others?


G. N. Appell
Charity Appell McNabb
February 23, 2017



The ethical dilemmas in documenting oral literature and providing public access of the materials is well addressed by the San people of South Africa. They have published a Code of Ethics for researchers wishing to work with the San (see the San Code of Research Ethics and this article in Science). This Code of Research Ethics is well worth considering by any scholar or researcher wanting to document the oral literature of an indigenous people. The San Code has risen as a result of some researchers not treating the San people with proper respect, or who have published information that is viewed as insulting, or who have published their findings without prior consultation with the San community, and finally as a result of the failure of some researchers to give anything back to the San community in return for San cooperation while forwarding their own careers with their findings.




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