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Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Ethical considerations

Flickr photo by stuckincustoms,

Ethical issues may be encountered at any step in the process of designing and maintaining a project. Thinking in advance about the ethical responsibilities to communities, to environmental resources, and/or to science may or may not save time and money, but it will likely save relationships and reputations. 

Below are some recommendations and resources shared by colleagues, when asked " What ethical issues should be considered in the design or management of a citizen science project?" This conversation was inspired by a working group at the 2011 workshop on Engaging and Learning for Conservation (full recommendations available for download; see Putting Strategies into Practice, p. 21).


Forum conversations on this topic remain open, but here are some early recommendations:

  • Communicate expectations
  • Be transparent about the process and research
  • Focus on data collection, not finger-pointing
  • Gain permission for taking/using photos
  • Consider cultural competencies in project design and evaluation
  • Anticipate unintended harm to people and ecosystems
  • Consider how project funders get their money
  • Be aware of state wildlife laws
  • Have necessary permits for research with animals or people


And some resources:

Have a Volunteer Bill of Rights. Some examples:

Kentucky Watershed Watch

A few others...

Have an institutional Code of Ethics. Some examples:

International Society of Ethnobiology


Have a data use and/or privacy policy. Some examples:

USA National Phenology Network  (scroll to Observer Privacy Policy)


Institutional Review Board for human subjects research (may be necessary for some projects studying educational outcomes for participants; consult your institution, university, or agency)

Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC)



Visit the forum to dig deeper, see who is making these comments and connect with them directly, and/or to add your own thoughts and ideas to this community resource.

Flickr photo by stuckincustoms, 

Citizen science, volunteer monitoring, participatory action research... this site supports organizers of all initiatives where public participants are involved in scientific research.

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