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Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Legal Policy

Legal policies outline the local laws, state laws, national laws, and other guidelines that govern the interactions between citizen science projects and their volunteers. 


Some legal policies exist to protect the rights of volunteers who contribute their data. These include policies relating to COPPA, which dictate the conditions where data can be collected from children under 13. Other policies, such as those that limit the liability of different campaigns, are designed to protect the projects themselves. 

One important type of legal policy outlines compliance with local, state, and national law. A related type of policy is non-legal such as IRB guidelines dictating acceptable conditions for involving human subjects in research. Finally, liability policies explain a project’s legal obligations and related disclaimers.   

Legal compliance: COPPA and CAN-SPAM

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which outlines the conditions for collecting personal data from children under 13, is a crucial legal consideration. Some projects, such as the Great Worldwide Star Count, explicitly list COPPA compliance: “We ensure that our privacy policy and our information practices adhere to the United States Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, and other applicable data privacy laws.” Others, projects, such as the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), simply note that they do not “knowingly collect personally identifiable information from children under 13.”

Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing (CAN-SPAM) is a US regulation that addresses how email addresses can be used in marketing. Essentially, CAN-SPAM dictates that while users do not need to “opt in” to a marketing mailing list, they must be able to “opt out” of one. Citizen science projects like What’s Invasive demonstrate CAN-SPAM compliance with language like “if you do not wish to be contacted using your email address, please contact us and we will remove it.”

Non-Legal compliance

Before conducting research on human subjects, many projects must get the approval of an Institutional Review Board (IRB). “Research on human subjects” is broadly defined, and may include research involving surveys, interviews, and gathering observational data. Therefore, projects such as Mountain Watch that “may occasionally conduct user surveys to better target our content to our audience” could be subject to IRB guidelines. 

To many, the term “research conducted with animal subjects” suggests controlled laboratory studies. However, in reality “research conducted with animal subjects” can also refer to field studies involving birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. The IACUC and USDA both offer guidelines for this type of research. 


Liability is a term that refers to legal responsibility. Tort Liability, which occurs when the actions of one group cause injury to another, is the type of liability most closely connected with citizen science and other projects that rely on the efforts of volunteers. 
Calflora, for example, “shall not be liable for any loss or damage, including lost profits, loss of use, or incidental, consequential or exemplary damages, caused to any personal resulting from information contained therein.” CoCoRaHs adds that it cannot be considered liable for “missing data or misinterpretation.” 

Liability becomes important when the content of a website harms a user in some way and that user files a legal complaint in response. In the absence of liability disclaimers, projects are vulnerable to being found guilty of harm. However, the simple act of posting a liability disclaimer does not always protect a project completely. In other words, liability disclaimers are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for liability to be disavowed. 

For more information, please refer to this data policy primer

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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