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Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Data Policy: Exemplar Projects


About these exemplars 

This page presents three projects with good data policy and highlights aspects of each that are particularly strong. The first exemplar, Zooniverse, is an excellent example of cohesive data policy, policy that clarifies data ownership, and policy that includes legal disclaimers. The second exemplar, iNaturalist, is an excellent example of a cohesive data policy that sets clear guidelines for attribution and privacy permissions.  Califlora, a local project operating on a much smaller scale, is listed as a third exemplar due to its excellent attribution guidelines and clear presentation of complex privacy permissions.


Zooniverse is a collection of different citizen science projects available through a common portal.  Popular projects include Galaxy Zoo, a virtual citizen science game where players classify different galaxies.  Zooniverse’s data policy is exemplary in three areas: cohesion, data ownership, and legal disclaimers.

Cohesion.  Zooniverse hosts its entire data policy on a single Privacy page.  Furthermore, a link to this page is included in the footer of every other page displayed on the Zooniverse website.  This makes it very hard for potential litigators to claim that they didn’t see Zooniverse’s data policy, or that the policy was hard to find.

Data Ownership.  Two sections of the Zooniverse data policy explain exactly who owns different types of data and how different types of data can be used:

What you may do with Zooniverse data

You retain ownership of any contribution you make to the Zooniverse, and any recorded interaction with the dataset associated with the Zooniverse. You may use, distribute or modify your individual contribution in any way you like. However, you do not possess ownership of the dataset itself. This license does not apply to data about you, covered in the Privacy Policy.

Legal details

By submitting your contribution to the Zooniverse, you agree to grant the CSA a perpetual, royalty-free, non-exclusive, sub-licensable license to: use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and exercise all copyright and publicity rights with respect to your contribution worldwide and/or to incorporate your contribution in other works in any media now known or later developed for the full term of any rights that may exist in your contribution.

These paragraphs protect the rights of Zooniverse contributors, who retain the ownership of individual data points, and of Zooniverse, which owns the entire data set. Zooniverse also explains the rationale for setting these permissions:

The major goal for this project is for the analyzed data to be available to the researchers for use, modification and redistribution in order to further scientific research. Therefore, if you contribute to the Zooniverse, you grant the CSA and its collaborators, permission to use your contributions however we like to further this goal, trusting us to do the right thing with your data. However, you give us this permission non-exclusively, meaning that you yourself still own your contribution. 

Legal Disclaimers. Zooniverse explicitly states its compliance with the following legal guidelines: 

  • United Kingdom Data Protection Act 1998
  • The Freedom of Information Act 2000
  • United States regulations regarding protection of human subjects in research 

Zooniverse also states that “By interacting with the Zooniverse, you”

  • Warrant that your contribution contains only data that you have the right to make available to the CSA for all the purposes specified above, is not defamatory, and does not infringe any law; and
  • Indemnify the CSA against all legal fees, damages and other expenses that may be incurred by the CSA as a result of your breach of the above warranty; and
  • Waive any moral rights in your contribution for the purposes specified above.  

By referencing legal guidelines and supplementing them with additional clauses, this data policy clearly asserts the legal rights of Zooniverse and the legal rights of contributors.


iNaturalist is “a place where you can record what you see in nature, meet other nature lovers, and learn about the natural world.” People who use iNaturalist can upload their own natural observations, view observations submitted by other iNaturalist users, and follow the activities of other iNaturalist users.  iNaturalist’s data policy is exemplary in three main areas: cohesion, attribution, and privacy permissions. 

Cohesion.  iNaturalist’s data policy can be found on its Privacy page, its Terms of Service page, and its Help page.  Links to all three pages are included in the footer of every page; the Terms of Service page also links to the Privacy page. This makes it difficult for potential litigators to reasonably claim that they didn’t see iNaturalist’s data policy, or that the policy was hard to find.

Attribution.  When users register for iNaturalist, they are given the option to license all of their data under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial license.  On one hand, having a default license makes things easier for iNaturalist users (who also have the option of changing the license for each piece of data that they upload).  On the other hand, having a license that applies to all submissions protects iNaturalist because it represents an explicit agreement with about the ways that data can be reused.


Privacy Permissions.  When people add observations to iNaturalist they are asked to include the location where the observation was made.  For each specific observation, iNaturalist allows users to designate the location as open, obscured, or private.

  • Open: Everyone can see the coordinates unless the taxon is threatened.
  • Obscured: Public coordinates shown as a random point within 10KM of the true coordinates. True coordinates are only visible to you and the curators of projects to which you add the observation.
  • Private: Coordinates completely hidden from public maps, true coordinates only visible to you and the curators of projects to which you add the observation.

This allows users to upload non-sensitive observations, such as photographs of animals observed in national parks, with exact geographic coordinates.  At the same time, users who upload sensitive observations-- such as those made in their backyards-- are able to protect their privacy.


Calflora was created as a searchable database to curate “information on wild California plants for conservation, education, and appreciation.”  It is considered a medium-scale, regional (state) campaign.  As an online library of plant information, users can both search Calflora for native plants and upload their own observations of native plants.  Calflora’s data policy is exemplary in two main areas: Attribution and Privacy permissions.

Attribution.  Calflora contains a citation on every page that contains data.  An example citation might read:


Information on California plants for education, research and conservation, based on data contributed by dozens of public and private institutions and individuals, including theConsortium of Calif. Herbaria. [web application]. 2013. Berkeley, California: The Calflora Database [a non-profit organization]. Available:  (Accessed: Jun 14, 2013).

Privacy Permissions.  Some Calflora users belong to groups with a certain focus, such as The Early Detection Network that targets invasive weeds.  When users belong to a group, they can upload unpublished records that will only be seen by group members.  This allows group members to discuss, classify, or make collective decisions about record before they are published for the general public to see.
This feature is commendable in part because of how it is explained.  Calflora includes an “access matrix” that shows exactly who can view each record submitted: 


This table is helpful for clarifying exactly who can have access to different types of data.  

Know of a story that would illustrate exemplary practice for this step?  Please be in touch with your idea!

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