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It’s common for consumers to wonder how social media sites use their data or what methods banks use to protect their financial information online. But what about data collected for citizen science projects?

On the surface, participating in citizen science projects can seem like an innocuous way for interested individuals, even children, to have fun, experience science enrichment, and meaningfully contribute to research. Such projects don’t appear to be cyberspace lurking spots where data predators lie in wait to commit nefarious acts. Yet if care isn’t taken, real harms can occur to citizen scientists, researchers note in “Coercion, Consent, and Participation in Citizen Science,” a study posted to the arXiv preprint server.

The paper discusses ethical questions, issues, and considerations surrounding citizen science projects. The research has been accepted for publication with major revisions to restructure the ordering of the content and condense some sections, said Pamela Gay, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., and a coauthor of the paper. Alison Reiheld, a philosopher studying ethics issues at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, is the other coauthor.

Is This Citizen Science or a Game?

Gay said that the idea for the project was sparked by the results of user design testing conducted with first-time citizen scientists for an online CosmoQuest project. The original goal was to evaluate whether the website design made sense to new citizen scientists and if it conveyed the information needed for them to be able to accomplish scientific tasks for the project, she said.

A diagram with boxes. Within the boxes are drawings of stick figures performing different actions to show how the process of a citizen science research project works from start to finish.
A CosmoQuest informed consent diagram created to explain to prospective citizen scientists how their data might be used. Gay and Reiheld recommend that such diagrams contain illustrations and minimal text. Credit: Courtesy of Pamela Gay

Part of this process entailed asking users how they thought data collected through the website would be used. Alarmingly, even though the website was designed to align with the best practices of the time and included statements such as “You are contributing data to help NASA,” some citizen scientists misunderstood the intended uses for project data, Gay said. Many participants said they thought the project tasks were part of a game or training exercise and didn’t realize the collected data were intended for research.

How often have citizen scientists misunderstood the nature of the projects they have participated in? How often have they not realized their data were being collected and used for research purposes?

This confusion left Gay wondering: How often have citizen scientists misunderstood the nature of the projects they have participated in? How often have they not realized their data were being collected and used for research purposes?

Informed Consent and Ethical Citizen Science

In the paper, Gay and Reiheld make it clear that ethical citizen science research must ensure that participants have given truly informed consent.

One piece of this puzzle requires providing digestible information detailing what participant data will be collected, how it will be used, and the potential impacts of those uses. For instance, participants in some studies may not realize that in addition to the research use of data they submit, they may be agreeing to the use of their demographic data in future studies assessing certain characteristics of people who take part in citizen science, Gay said.

In addition, Gay and Reiheld maintain, researchers must explain to prospective citizen scientists what, if any, formal recognition they might receive for their efforts. For instance, will their name be listed on the project website? Will they be named as coauthors on studies that are published? The team also said that scientists need to explain how their own careers might benefit from the citizen science project (such as receiving awards, funding, promotions, or tenure).

The use of easy-to-understand documents with minimal text can help ensure informed consent, the team noted, especially when contributors might not be fluent in the same language as the researchers. For online projects, to ensure participants have agreed to the project terms, logins must be used, Gay said.

Another critical component to ethical citizen science research is ensuring that participants can provide uncoerced consent to the terms of the project.

If children are too young to provide consent to, say, having social media accounts or other online uses of their data, they also can’t consent to having their data collected through online citizen science projects, Gay said. Moreover, she said, using data from child citizen scientists can create harm if their main takeaway from the exchange is that adults benefited from using their information but the children didn’t gain much in return. This perception of imbalance can be particularly damaging if it happens when kids don’t have much experience with science; it can potentially encourage them to become science averse, Gay added.

“This project challenges us to think about the many relevant paradigms that might inform judgments about ethical obligations in citizen science.”

Instructors and others interested in helping youngsters learn more about citizen science can use alternative means, such as discussing the field using citizen science or showing examples of projects without actually submitting data to them, Gay said.

Researchers found that older children and even adults can be coerced into citizen science project participation. Often the coercion is accidental. An egregious example is when instructors require project participation for a classroom grade and don’t offer any alternative means for achieving the assignment credit, Gay noted. Even offering citizen science projects as one of several possible ways of earning a grade can be coercive because that project might seem easier or less time-consuming than the alternatives, she said.

“This project challenges us to think about the many relevant paradigms that might inform judgments about ethical obligations in citizen science,” wrote Ana Iltis, director of the Center for Bioethics, Health and Society at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., in an email to Eos. Iltis was not involved with the study.

“For example, collecting and using data about citizen scientists for research on citizen science might be more like doing an observational study or using patient records to do research than enrolling patients into a randomized clinical trial. There are possible paradigms beyond what we typically see as human research and health care, such as marketing research in which virtually all of us unwittingly participate when we shop online or go to the grocery store. Looking at the questions citizen science raises might encourage us to rethink some existing entrenched paradigms,” Iltis added.

— Rachel Crowell (@writesRCrowell), Freelance Science Journalist


Crowell, R. (2019), What makes for ethical citizen science research?, Eos, 100, Published on 03 October 2019.

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