Building Trustworthy Data Practices for Citizen Science

The co-creation process of this research initiative has concluded. Click here to view the resulting Data Ethics in the Participatory Sciences Toolkit.

Citizen science is home to a wide range of projects differing in topic, purpose, scale, scope, and design. However, all citizen science projects depend on data shared by the volunteers who collect or generate it.

Ensuring trustworthy data is not based solely on technical decisions: it depends on ethical ones too. The CSA community of practitioners will be stronger by addressing challenging issues such as crediting volunteers, providing return of results, balancing volunteer privacy with data openness, and conveying transparency.

When it comes to the question of what data practices are most appropriate, there is no one-size-fits-all answer: context matters. Each project has unique aspects that may require different approaches to how data is collected and managed.

From August to October 2020, we hosted 12 focus group sessions spanning across 5 data ethics topics from data openness and data privacy to credit, return of results, and transparency.

Over 50 focus group participants have suggested resources and tools to achieve best practices of data ethics in citizen science. Prospective tools were reviewed by participants via resource workshops in fall 2021 to ensure that the content is accurate, accessible, and usable for guiding citizen science practitioners through the ethical components of crediting participants for the research contributions.

Why data ethics?

A common feature of all citizen science projects is that they rely on data collected or created by volunteers. Currently, however, there are no common guidelines for how to ethically collect, manage, credit, and share data in a way that benefits the various stakeholders involved in citizen science projects. Citizen science methods are increasing in their use, as well as impact, and it is important that our community proactively addresses the topic of best practices for data stewardship. 

Each discipline — be it ecology, astronomy, or public health — brings its own norms and practices to citizen science. For example, ecology emphasizes data openness while public health brings an emphasis on data privacy. However, discipline-specific frameworks and principles have gaps when applied to citizen science because they arose before the discipline adopted citizen science practices. As a result, citizen science needs to discuss trustworthy data practices in a citizen science context and offer support to practitioners who are navigating ethical issues outside of their “home” discipline, often for the first time. This NSF-funded and CSA-collaborative effort takes steps toward this goal by identifying community priorities around data practices and co-creating the tools to achieve them.

Citizen science raises familiar ethical issues such as collecting identifying information from volunteers (intentionally or unintentionally), but it also raises novel questions from whether to consider volunteers as “human research subjects” to how to maintain publicly available records of endangered species’ location. The design and implementation of citizen science projects also present issues of power dynamics, division of labor, acknowledgment for contributions, data openness, data privacy, return of results, and overall research transparency. These are all especially important when considering vulnerable populations such as children or marginalized communities.

About the Data Ethics Endeavor

NSF’s “Cultivating Cultures in Ethical Science, Technology, Medicine, and Engineering (CCE-STEM)” program has awarded a grant — “Establishing Norms of Data Ethics in Citizen Science” — to Caren Cooper at (PhD, NCSU) and Lisa Rasmussen (PhD, UNCC). Elizabeth Jones (PhD, NCSU) is the Project Manager. The Research Team works in collaboration with CSA as a community engagement partner to explore, discuss, and elevate best practices. The grant has two main goals: (1) identify and encourage responsible research by practitioners in the emerging field of citizen science; and (2) build CSA’s capacity to uphold trustworthy data practices in this field.

To reach these goals, the research team (Cooper, Rasmussen, and Jones) has designed a co-creation process directly inviting the CSA community to compile and develop best practices, resources, and norms for ethical data stewardship. The co-creation process is practitioner-focused in that it offers guidance to individuals making decisions about data handling in citizen science projects. Given that laws and policies around data vary between countries, this process is US-focused in content, but everyone in our international community is welcome to participate.

In joining the effort, you can be a part of the “Data Practices Research Team” and will be given credit as such in presentations, publications, and reports for your general contribution to the research. Participants contributing to specific products developed in focus groups and resource workshops will have the option to be acknowledged by name on resulting products.

The co-creation process results (i.e. research findings and practical resources) will be presented broadly to the community via publications and at the CSA Conference in 2021. The CSA will have the option to adopt and make available the data practice recommendations and resources developed by and for the members of this community.

How the Data Ethics Toolkit Was Created

This co-creation process is designed to involve the members of the citizen science community in discussions of best practices and development of new resources around data stewardship. The goal is not just to discuss and develop tools for the community, but to make sure these tools are developed by the people of this community. 

To achieve this aim, this co-creation process is an ongoing dialogue with interested individuals through a variety of formats from surveys to discussions and workshops. Everyone’s ideas, experiences, and expertise is needed, so all members from project managers and volunteers to educators, researchers, activists, and government officials are encouraged to contribute.

Your participation in any project activities is voluntary. The research team will have access to your name and email address, but your responses to the surveys (steps 1 and 4 above) will be confidential. Your name and email address is being collected to match pre/post-survey responses and for incentive tracking purposes. During the virtual sessions (steps 2 and 3 above), your name, audio, and video will be visible to other session participants, so it is not possible to maintain anonymity. 

All data collected (confidential survey responses and confidential quotations from focus groups/resource workshops) will be anonymized and used in research publications, presentations, and other forms of dissemination. An anonymized version of the survey data will eventually be publicly accessible and licensed in the Creative Commons public domain and archived in a controlled data repository.

Get involved

Step 1: Online Pre-Survey

Enroll in in the co-creation process by taking a 20-minute pre-survey. You will be asked questions about your involvement in citizen science and your views of specific data practices as applied to hypothetical citizen science scenarios. Your answers in this pre-survey will help determine the content for the virtual focus group and resource workshop sessions based on what you and your community members most need.

Step 2: Virtual Focus Group Sessions

Sessions were designed to discuss in greater depth the needs of the citizen science community regarding trustworthy data practices. With your input, we tackled key topics like credit, return of results, data privacy, data openness, and transparency. All focus groups were scheduled as 1.5 hour online sessions with no more than 20 participants in each session. These discussions have directly informed the practical resources and tools to be developed in following resource workshops which are now available for registration.

Step 3: Virtual Resource Workshop Sessions

Each workshop was designed to co-create practical tools that will help the citizen science community implement trustworthy data practices. Resource workshops will be thematic and based on topics covered in previous focus group sessions. All focus groups are scheduled as 1.5 hour online sessions with no more than 20 participants in each session.

Step 4: Online Post-Survey

This step concludes participation in the research study through a post-survey to assess any changes in your opinion about data practices in citizen science. If you participated in any of the above three steps, you will receive an email with the post-survey link when the research study is complete.

Contact the Research Team

This study is led by Caren Cooper (PhD, North Carolina State University), Lisa Rasmussen (PhD, University of North Carolina at Charlotte), and Elizabeth Jones (PhD, North Carolina State University). This research is funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted in collaboration with the Citizen Science Association.

  • Project Manager Contact: If you have questions or concerns about the study, please contact the project manager, Elizabeth Jones, at <>.
  • Research Team Contact: If you have questions or want to offer comments and suggestions directly and anonymously to the research team, then please submit your input via our message form. Your comments are private and for the research team’s consideration. Message Form Coming Soon!
  • Funding Information: This research is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #1835352. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this research are those of the Research Team and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
  • Accessibility Information: The Research Team aims to make this co-creation process accessible to everyone interested in citizen science. If you have accessibility concerns in relation to one or all parts of the co-creation process (surveys or online sessions), please contact the project manager, Elizabeth Jones (elizabeth_jones[@] so accommodations can be discussed.
  • Institutional Review Board: This research has been approved by North Carolina State University (NCSU) Institutional Review Board (IRB) and classified under exempt status. For questions or concerns regarding your rights as a subject in this study, contact the NCSU IRB for Human Participants Administrator at 919-515-4514 or access the website at
  • Informed Consent: Upon taking the survey and joining the study, all participants are provided with an Informed Consent document. To view a copy, please click here.