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What ethics for citizen science?

July 26, 2020, 3:47 p.m.

Original article by Antonella Ficorilli from CitieS-Health published in Epidemiologia e la Prevenzione.

Free and voluntary active citizen participation can take place at various levels: from simple data collection to the construction of tools such as low-cost sensors, to data analysis, to design of research protocols, and the identification of the topics to be investigated. It is a collaborative or promoted research developed only by citizens, which is intended to produce scientific knowledge through a bottom-up, non-academic and non-institutional approach. Therefore, citizen science (CS) differs from traditional science both in the way that citizens participate in the research process and in the type of research objectives that intends to investigate about solving social problems that local communities feel strongly and that can provide useful knowledge for broader realities.

The ethics that citizens should apply in their research and the possible alignment with the research ethics expressed by international documents have not received much attention.

A first problem refers to the responsible conduct of those who carry out a scientific activity. In CS the principles and values ​​indicated by current research ethics must be respected. The duty, therefore, of the researcher to act in accordance with the ethical and epistemological standards of “good science” also extends to the citizens. Hence, two new types of responsibilities arise: that of the researcher to transfer the ethics of research to the citizens who will be involved in the CS process and the responsibility of the citizens to make their own ethical and epistemological standards.

A second topic refers to the convenience of using the only ethical framework of traditional research in CS contexts. It could be useful not to lose sight of the recognition of knowledge that comes from the citizens, which allows the active participation of the citizens and to consider collaboration between researchers and citizens as a two-way interaction, where researchers and citizens actively contribute to the definition of the objectives of a study.

In CS project we find new needs, such as conflicts between researchers and citizens over the research objective to be pursued, about the intellectual property of the research results or how to share and use these results.

We are witnessing the transition from an ethics of protection of research subjects to an ethics of empowerment of the “citizen scientists”, which may disagree with the researcher’s point of view. In such a scenario, it is increasingly urgent to understand what are the methods of social and legal legitimation of CS practices, especially when they are the only citizens who promote them, and how to harmonize them with existing procedures to regulate scientific activities, in particular ethical approval of research projects promoted by researchers.


The complete article in English:

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