On the inadequacy of ethics statements

Dear NIME community,

I have recently finished my reviews and am looking forward to this year’s conference and reading the proceedings this summer. However, while reviewing and writing my own submission this year, I have been struggling with ethics statements.

I feel like there is no way to adequately address the complex ethical maelstrom that we must operate within. Issues related to e.g. inclusivity, social justice, neoliberal capitalism, and especially the socio-environmental impact(s) of our research, which inherently involves the use of complex computing machinery whose origins cannot be traced, invoke the use of rare minerals, and in all cases probably involves at some point in the inscrutable supply chain the exploitation and oppression of human workers, all these issues plague me. I feel like it is necessary to consider these kinds of capital B-I-G issues, and have real concern for the future well being of human society, the earth, etc., if these issues are not eventually addressed.

And then I have to write an ethics statement, possibly several, and I find myself ruminating about these BIG issues that I as an individual can do very little about immediately. And these issues are at best tangentially related to the actual research that I am presenting. They’re as related to this research as they are to posting on this forum, or eating dinner, or having a safe home with a roof above my head, or taking a walk down the street without fearing for my life, or etc. Inevitably whatever I write in this ethics statement is necessarily not going to be adequate. So I settle for an inadequate ethics statement. I mention that the research ethics board approved the research, and the research was conducted according to blah blah ethical standards, and so on, and with some discomfort I quietly ignore that the research was conducted using computers built by god knows who in who knows what conditions, that the research benefited from heaps of social priviledge, that none of this is helping with any of that, and so on, see above.

And as I read the papers I am reviewing, and papers published at previous years of the conference, I can’t help but feel that almost all of the ethics statements are, in this way, inadequate. The ethics statement is like a tacked on lip service we pay towards the ideal of ethics, but not something that actually contributes meaningfully to our ethical behavior or towards action that resolves ethical crises that affect our society.

So what am I to do about this? Like, obviously I’m overthinking this at least a little bit, but it seems like a problem worth addressing.

What is the actual purpose of these statements? Is there some way to write them that does not functionally operate equivalent to an afterthought? Is there some way that they can actually help or instigate meaningful ethical behavior and action, generally? What is the standard that we should hold ourselves to in the writing of these statements, and what is the standard that we should expect when reviewing the ethics statements of others? What constitutes “an appropriate Ethics statement” as requested in the conference management tool, and to what extent are the published ethics statements of previous conferences exemplary of this standard for appropriateness? Is an appropriate ethics statement necessarily adequate?

Please help.


Travis West


Dear Travis,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this very important topic.

I agree with you that currently, the Ethics Statement seems to be a tick on a to-do list, something “extra” and possibly borderline annoying/boring. It is there for authors to acknowledge that their work is aligned with the NIME Code of Ethics and to provide a tool to reject a submission that fails at this.

I don’t think that a short paragraph is a space for investigating meaningful ethical behaviour. What fulfils that function is the Code itself. Ideally, rather than retrospectively making sure that their work doesn’t contain ethical issues, authors would consult the Code before conducting their research as it would guide them in identifying possible ethical issues they might now have considered, including some aspects you mentioned. As we explained in the Code, these issues go beyond what an Institutional Ethics Board might consider “ethical”.

Anyway, we are open to hearing from the Community about possible ways to make this Ethics Statement section more meaningful.