Chen Explores Ethics in Citizen Science

By Andrew McCullough - Involving the general public in the scientific process has many potential benefits, particularly when it comes to data collection and categorization. But "citizen science" also raises a number of ethical issues. Shun-Ling Chen explored those issues on January 24, 2017 in a lecture entitled "Beyond Efficiency: Ethics and Fairness Concerns in Citizen Science."

Citizen science refers to collaboration between “certified scientists” and non-certified individuals. The practice is not new—the Audobon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, for example, started in 1900. But recent technological advances that allow for the collection of massive data sets, as well as for public access to data, has led to growth in its prevalence around the world. Today, its most common forms involve non-certified individuals collecting data in the field (e.g. iNaturalist) or categorizing data collected by professional scientists (e.g. Zooniverse).

In the United States, the role of “citizen” is typically limited to data collection and classification. Some refer to this framework as “crowd-sourced science,” as citizen participants are effectively treated as data sensors. However, the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) has stated that citizens can take part in multiple stages of the research process—developing research questions and methods, say, or communicating results—and that citizens should be acknowledged in results and publications.

Engagement or exploitation

In her talk, Chen—an assistant research professor at the Academia Sinica in Taipei who also holds an S.J.D. from Harvard Law School—discussed a variety of issues regarding ethics and fairness in citizen science. The first concerned the voluntary participation of non-certified individuals. Are the citizens actively engaged in a scientific project via a free and informed choice, or is it possible that free labor is being exploited? For example, could a private company initiate a citizen science project to collect valuable data that would otherwise be difficult to obtain, and then use the information for proprietary gain?

Such questions were brought to light in recent years by a project posted on the popular citizen science web portal Zooniverse, in which participants may have unwittingly classified asteroids according to valuable mineral content at the same time that organizations associated with the project’s founders were lobbying the US Congress to pass laws allowing for commercial mineral extraction on asteroids. Such examples have brought up the issue of a regulatory board or agency to oversee citizen science projects.

Fairness, accountability, integrity

Concerns over fairness include questions about how to acknowledge citizen labor in scientific publications. Also up for debate is whether or not to involve citizens in the analysis of data, interpretation of results, or design of future research projects. For example, should citizens receive individual acknowledgement, or is collective acknowledgement sufficient? Given that accountability is a central tenet to science, to what extent should citizen participants be held accountable for the integrity of the data? Is such accountability even possible?

With respect to broader roles, should citizen participants be free to conduct their own data analysis, or should groups of citizen participants be able to cancel a research project viewed as critically flawed—or propose an alternative project? Other questions include whether citizen participants should have free access to all the data, rather than a limited subset, as well as to any published materials.

Matters of philosophy

Ultimately, Shen said, such questions are all intertwined. And the answers may be quite different for different types of citizen science research projects. But all of these issues speak to a
more fundamental question: what is the ideal relationship between certified scientists and the non-certified “citizens” who work with (or for) them? The vast majority of citizen science projects are created, structured, and organized by certified scientists actively engaged in the scientific community. Thus, the traditional wheels of science are largely in control of which projects move forward and what roles citizen participants can play. It therefore may not be most appropriate for those same institutions to determine the terms of the relationship—that is, to determine the rights of the individuals who choose to participate.

Modifying the traditional networks and institutions of science to incorporate citizen science is a challenge that requires deep philosophical questions to be answered. The earliest citizen science projects focused on maximizing efficiency in the collection or classification of massive amounts of data. But maximizing efficiency must be only one priority, Shen concluded, as we develop a framework for large-scale citizen science.

Learn more about Shun-Ling Chen.