Citizen Science and Ethics session (British Ecological Society – Citizen Science SIG)

As part of the activities of the Citizen Science Special Interest Group of the British Ecological Society (BES), Michael Pocock organised “A training event for citizen science: What you need to know, but no one told you!”. I was asked to lead a 30 minutes discussion on ethics and citizen science. This is a wide area, and some discussion about it is already happening.  In addition, there is an emerging working group within the Citizen Science Association (CSA) that will be dedicated to this issue, and I have summarised the session about ethics in the CSA conference in another post.

For the training event, and especially considering that the participants are more likely to be with a background in ecology, I have decided to focus on 4 documents with ‘codes of ethics’ that are the most relevant to ecology & citizen science, with 2 extra for comparison. Three of these are official – the codes of ethics of the Ecological Society of America – (ESA, available here), the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management – (CIEE, available here), the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE, available here). Finally, the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) principles of citizen science (the latest draft available here). In the comparative group, I used the Royal Geographical Society and the Institute of Civil Engineers codes.

What is noticeable in professional codes of ethics (ESA, CIEEM) is that the profession, its reputation and the relationships between members are the top priority. This is common to almost all professional codes of ethics – and it demonstrate that ethics is about self-preservation. Later on, come the responsibility to the other stakeholders, the wider public and to non-humans that the activities can impact. Commonly, wider issues are covered in the principles, or in a preamble, but not within the code itself – although the Royal Geographical Society actually codified  “due regard to the need to protect the environment, human rights, and to ensure efficient use of natural resources” and the Institute of Civil Engineers also codified “due regard for the environment and for the sustainable management of natural resources.”. It is somewhat ironic that ecologists have not codified this aspect.

The two other documents are especially interesting from the point of view of citizen science. First, the ISE code of ethics is not mostly about the researchers and their professional standing, but “to facilitate ethical conduct and equitable relationships, and foster a commitment to meaningful collaboration and reciprocal responsibility by all parties.” it continues with “The fundamental value underlying the Code of Ethics is the concept of mindfulness – a continual willingness to evaluate one’s own understandings, actions, and responsibilities to others. The Code of Ethics acknowledges that biological and cultural harms have resulted from research undertaken without the consent of Indigenous peoples.” and it has a much stronger stance on the duty of care of the researcher as the powerful actor in the situation.

The code is especially relevant in bottom-up citizen science activities, but a lot of it seem to match the concepts behind ECSA principles of citizen science. The principles are calling for a meaningful activities with mutual respect and recognition of the scientists and the volunteers that working with them.

Will the ethics of citizen science evolve along this more inclusive lines, with an understanding that following this will also help to grow and preserve the field as a whole?