Citizen Science is gaining popularity. The term refers to a form of scientific research that is carried out entirely or in part by citizens who are not professional scientists. These citizens contribute to research projects by, for example, reporting observations of plants and birds, by playing computer games or by measuring their own blood sugar level. “Citizen scientists” (also referred to as, for instance, “participants”, “volunteers”, “uncredentialed researchers”, or “community researchers”) can be involved in several ways and at any stage of a research project. They often collect data, for instance about air quality or water quality, and sometimes they are also involved in the analysis of those data. In some cases, citizens initiate and/or lead research projects, but in most of the projects we read about in academic journals, professional scientists take the lead and involve citizens at some stage(s) of the research. Some interpret the rise of citizen science as a development towards the democratisation of science and the empowerment of citizens. In this post, I address some ethical worries regarding citizen science initiatives, relate them to the choice of terminology and raise the question as to whether we need an ethical code for citizen science.

There are two general worries with regard to citizen science activities. The first concerns the quality of the research undertaken (can citizen science produce sound scientific knowledge?); the second concerns the ethicalness of such activities. Do both citizen scientists and professional scientists benefit from participating? Are citizen scientists acknowledged in publications? Etc. In projects where the role of the participating citizens is limited to being mere sensors or data collectors, talking about the democratisation of science or the empowerment of citizens seems rather far-fetched. Such projects are differently motivated, for instance by the possibility of getting access to more, or different, data, or bringing in different kinds of expertise and knowledge, such as local or traditional knowledge.

From an ethical viewpoint, the relationship between professional scientists and citizen scientists is of central importance. Is it a relationship of equals? Do the collaborating individuals recognise and appreciate the different kinds of knowledge and capacities that they bring to the table? A lack of respect and recognition is often an issue in citizen science projects. Eitzel et al. (2017) argue that the terms used for the different participants in citizen science projects affect how participants are seen and treated. This means that people initiating citizen science projects as well as those writing about such projects need to think carefully about the terminology they adopt. The choice of terminology is a difficult one. As Eitzel et al. (2017) show, every terminological choice has its shortcomings and none of the available terms is suitable in every context. If you call the citizens “volunteers”, this suggests they do not need to be compensated for their efforts. If you call them “lay people”, this suggests they do not have any special expertise. And so on. The European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) contrasts citizen scientists with professional scientists, and above I used the same terms. But is this a good terminological choice? A problem connected to it is that it suggests that citizen scientists are unprofessional. Another problem is that everyone involved in a citizen science project should qualify as a citizen scientist. If the ideal is a relationship between equals, the best terminological choice seems to be to call everyone involved a citizen scientist, and to subsequently make the distinction between citizen scientists that have an affiliation with an academic institution and citizen scientists that do not have such an affiliation.

ECSA published 10 principles of citizen science, which express “some of the key principles which as a community we [the members of ECSA; J.H.] believe underlie good practice in citizen science”. These principles do not come close to anything like an ethical code for citizen science. Do we need such a code? “We are witnessing the transition from an ethics of protection of research subjects to an ethics of empowerment of the ‘citizen scientists’”, writes Antonella Ficorilli.  An ethical code for citizen science would need to be grounded in the experiences of both professional scientists and citizen scientists (to use these terms again) in a wide variety of contexts. It would have to go beyond the ECSA principles by paying attention to the quality of the relationship between the different kinds of participants. Given the many different forms that citizen science can take, we might need different ethical codes for different domains. Citizen science in the domain of health and well-being might require its own ethical standards, for instance, as it gives rise to domain-specific ethical issues.

I am an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Previously I have held research and teaching positions at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation in Venice, Maastricht University, Utrecht University and Eindhoven University of Technology. I hold a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. My husband and I live in Baarn, a village in the province of Utrecht, together with our two daughters Philine and Romy.