Research ethics

Research should do no harm – this is true for professional science, as well as citizen science. Projects should consider what potential harm their activities could cause, to their participants, their objects of study, or their wider environment. When embarking on a project, all potential risks should be identified and assessed, and mitigation strategies developed, preferably in a formal risk assessment. While it may be tempting to dive straight into practicalities or the research topic in more depth, it is imperative for projects to consider the risks and implications of their work before that. Only if these ethical questions are considered from the very beginning can the project itself evolve addressing them. Trying to do so retrospectively is likely to result in sub-par approaches that are not able to materialise all the benefits a project could have, or even inadvertently causing harm. This could have negative effects for the projects and its stakeholders, especially in the form of reputational or even legal damage; or for the citizen scientists, their community, or environment.

Projects will have inherent risks to participants, which can constitute anything from inadvertent exposure to harmful materials while collecting samples, to exposure of sensitive personal information. Participants should be made expressly aware of the risks and mitigation strategies that may affect them prior to commencing their engagement in the project. The principle of informed consent to engagement and the risks it entails is vital; merely gaining acknowledgement does not suffice. The risks of engaging with a project must be explained in plain terms, such that the citizen scientists have understood the possible implications of their participation, and actively agreed to take these risks for themselves. It is also important to note that, as volunteers, citizen scientists will not be protected by the same institutional insurance and labour laws that are afforded to paid project staff. The specifics of regulations relating to personal liability and injury vary depending on national and institutional regulations, and should be checked and clarified before participants are recruited. This formalisation of risk assessment and mitigation should be approached in conjunction with best practice on safeguarding participants.

Projects also have a responsibility to safeguard the environment and those inhabiting it. Without proper training, there is a risk that citizen scientists working in sensitive ecosystems could unintentionally do harm to their objects of study or the surrounding environment (Palmer et al., 2020). Furthermore, data collection alone, without adequate links to the social context, has the potential to have an unexpected negative impact on environmental health. The higher capabilities of citizens to monitor environmental factors has been suggested to lead to a scaling-down of monitoring by regulatory bodies (Goeschl & Jürgens, 2012). Some of the radiation monitoring projects which arose in response to the Fukushima disaster, were successfully in terms of citizen engagement and data collection, but, due to a complex interplay of different stakeholder aims, led to citizen scientists counterintuitively supporting government’s and lobbies’ normalization of the post-disaster situation and in loosing their initial conflictual aspects (Polleri, 2019). Research can also cause other forms of unforeseen harm: A study involving the introduction of fines for parents who picked their children up late from a day-care centre ended up worsening parents’ behaviour, as the fine was perceived as a price for a service, which the day-care centre was unable to revoke (Gneezy & Rustichini, 2000).

A thorough risk assessment should be made after stakeholder analysis to pinpoint “flashpoints”: contentious topics or those that could create a strong emotional response, topics that have the potential to be traumatic or triggering. Mitigation measures can include having an observer or facilitator present, or setting out / co-creating guidelines for discussions that are shared with all participants in advance.

Lastly, citizen science research should ensure that it is not “extractive” – it should ensure that the project benefits not only an organisation or researcher, but also the community the project engages with. Projects should also consider that, if their community is diverse, different members of this community may have different expectations, depending on their culture and lived experience.

Professional researchers may have access to ethics boards or review processes that help them conduct these risk assessments, identify issues and devise mitigation strategies. This may not be the case for citizen science projects, who need to find alternative ways to ensure their assessments and strategies are sound. One simple way of doing this would be to co-create the risk assessment with their participants, or share it with some of their stakeholders. We provide a research ethics checklist that can help projects work through these questions in a structured way. Project owners should be aware that this process of identifying, assessing and mitigating risks can take considerable time, and therefore needs to be planned into the overall timeline of the project.

Research ethics checklist

Research ethics checklist

Questions to ask in your citizen science projects to consider ethical implications

  • What is it that you want to do? What is the goal of your project, and how do you plan to achieve it?
  • Who will be involved in your project? Who will participate, and who will be affected, directly or indirectly?
  • Do any of the activities you plan have the potential to cause harm, either directly or indirectly, to your citizen scientists, or anybody else?
    Harm can mean many things, from making people uneasy, to causing discomfort or even physical injuries; or affecting people’s reputation or livelihoods.
  • How will citizen scientists and others who may be affected by it benefit from your project?
  • Do the people who could be affected, either directly or indirectly, know about what you want to do and why? Have they given their consent, and had an opportunity to object?
    It is important to consider power imbalances in this context, for example if you plan to engage with people who are dependent on some element or stakeholder of your project, or if you work with minors or elderly people who may not be able to give informed consent.
  • Will you collect any personal data, about your participants or others? Do participants expect anonymity? How will you ensure this?
    If you work with personal data, please read our guidance in the Data section.
  • If what you plan to do made the headline of the New York Times tomorrow, would people be angry about it? Why?

Water Sentinels

The Water Sentinels project has a very close relationship to the small group of citizen scientists they work with. When the project began, through discussions with the ACTION team as well as their participants, they started to think about the potential risks to their participants. This was largely driven by ACTION’s requirement to ensure participants gave informed consent to their engagement, and were informed about any risks inherent to their participation in that process. Asking for a signature to state consent gave the participants’ involvement an ‘official’ perception it did not have before, and thus caused a more in-depth conversation about consent and risks of participation.

Participants both collect current data through water samples, but also contribute historical data about pollution events that they have witnessed. The historical data collection was completed by the project team, due to privacy concerns of participants, who were uncomfortable sharing potentially sensitive issues with volunteers. This necessitated that the project team speak to all participants individually or in small groups, rather than implement either data collection by citizen scientists, or in large group settings. For similar reasons, the project team and the participants decided that it would be safer for the citizen scientists not to appear in any materials about the project, such as videos, or be acknowledged by name. Participants perceived being publicly linked to the project as a risk, as their contributions might expose polluters in their local community, some of which their livelihood depended on; or cause conflict in their own communities. Participants were not comfortable with the possibility of retribution by either potential polluters or their communities if their contributions could be traced back to them.

These discussions initially caused delays and worries with participants, but also allowed the project team to work through these issues with the participants and make them truly aware of the risks, and therefore ultimately collect well-informed consent to the participation that was agreed, and may affect how they engage with research in the future.

Mapping Mobility

The Mapping Mobility project was led by researchers at a British university, which required them to submit their research methodology for an ethical review before implementing it.

While the project team had been trained in citizen science and engagement, the Universities’ ethics committee had no such background. They were not familiar with citizen science as a practice, and raised many concerns about the projects’ attempts to engage citizens in a variety of ways being potentially exploitative. This caused the project to make very clear in their setup and documentation exactly what citizens could do, and what benefit their engagement would have, to the research project, to themselves, and to the wider community. The main benefits for participants were the opportunity to acquire new skills (specifically in using GIS software), contribute to policy about mobility in their environment through data, and releasing funds for their community centre if they contributed a set, low number of data points.

Participants were aware of the potential benefits and what they were expected to do, as they had already been engaged with the project team in previous work. However,  clarifying circumstances to the ethics committee and ensuring they understood why these practices were not exploitative and gave permission to carry out the research, was a serious hurdle. The delay caused by communication and assessment with the committee took several months, which caused the project overall to fall behind the ACTION accelerator timeline, which required the project to be completed in six months.

Safeguarding in citizen science

Participatory projects and citizen science are powerful methods that can have significant impact both on the project outcomes and those participating. This high potential for positive impact is matched by just as high a potential for inadvertent and unintended harm. Creating participatory projects and working with citizen scientists requires careful consideration, upfront planning and continued monitoring to ensure both the safety and continued wellbeing of those taking part (Resnik et al, 2015). Here we present some important considerations for safeguarding in citizen science, including the importance of the social context of the project, and the requirement to protect the rights of their participants. Further information, particularly relating to risk assessment and management, is available in the ethics section.  

Understanding the social context of your project

Once the stakeholders for a project have been identified, the power dynamics within these stakeholders should be understood and acknowledged. Power dynamics have an implication on how responsibility and tasks are apportioned, and how different stakeholders feel they can act within a project. The designation of responsibility within a project depends on the organisational structure – how project organisers and initiators interact with each other. If a project is hierarchical in structure, the responsibility for safeguarding falls clearly within the purview of the core project team. In all cases, the principle of informed consent to engagement and the risks it entails is vital; merely gaining acknowledgement does not suffice. The risks of engaging with a project must be explained in plain terms, such that the citizen scientists have understood the possible implications of their participation. 

Intellectual property

It is important to understand the differences between volunteering and professional or paid engagement with a project. As unpaid volunteers, citizen scientists donate their time and efforts to a project according to the motivations and incentives outlined below. Important to the continuation of this exchange is fairness in relation to how Intellectual Property (IP) rights are handled within the project. IP describes the ideas, conclusions and innovations that come from a project. Formally funded projects have enormous discussions about how IP will be handled before a proposal is submitted, yet in CS projects the issue is often neglected. There is an implicit trust within a CS project that IP will be handled fairly. However, while there are obvious reputational repercussions if this trust is broken, projects rarely implement safeguards to prevent this. In fact, it is precisely because the citizen scientists are volunteers that they are the most vulnerable to losing their IP: lacking contracts, they fall outside many of the legal safeguards developed long before CS was a consideration (Guerrini et al., 2018; Ottinger, 2017). Many volunteers may be unaware of issues of intellectual property and the potential value of their contributions (Standing & Standing, 2017). Indeed, it is this lack of understanding and information that poses arguably the most significant ethical risk for crowdsourced activities such as citizen science: scientists and project administrators hold all or most of the power in such initiatives by virtue of their greater knowledge of — and influence on — the crowdsourcing landscape  (Martin et al., 2017).

The situation is clearer when it comes to copyright; although still varying from country to country, most often the CS will retain their copyright of any documentation and materials that they produce during the project, as long as they have not agreed to hand over these rights. This, however, can cause complications in publishing project results. Potential for copyright disputes can be avoided by having a policy of publishing all content from the project under one of the many Creative Commons licences that permit reuse of the material without handing over copyright. 

Managing commitment and capacity

Operating outside of established safeguarding structures, it is important to be aware of the risk of overcommitment to a CS project, particularly in the case of projects where the citizen scientists are particularly invested in the outcomes – for instance where the intention for engaging is to effect change in the citizens’ environment. This risk can be addressed at multiple points in a CS project. In designing the project, the initiator manages the expected workload and time commitment of citizen scientists through levels of participation that can be navigated so that a participant who is overwhelmed can scale back the amount of time or energy they devote to the project. To some extent, and particularly in larger projects, the risk of burn-out in a project can be reduced by effective communication strategies such as rewarding and acknowledging contributions and commitment to the project (Land-Zandstra et al., 2021). In smaller projects where there may be additional pressures from interpersonal relationship expectations, it is important to keep personal channels of communication open and to take the initiative in checking on the welfare of participants.