Code of Citizen Science Research Ethics

BTO leads in the design and organisation of projects that partner with the public to collect research data, and is committed to maintaining the highest contemporary standards in all its ‘citizen science’ activities.

BTO leads in the design and organisation of projects that partner with the public to collect research data, and is committed to maintaining the highest contemporary standards in all its ‘citizen science’ activities. All our staff are expected to adhere to our Code of Good Scientific Practice in their work. This document forms part of that Statement and outlines expectations with regards to the ethics of research involving the participation of citizen scientists to collect data, rather than as subjects themselves. Where our members, volunteers or other persons are themselves the subject of the research activity, the Code of Ethics provided by the British Psychological Society should be followed.  We expect all our staff and volunteers to adhere to the Birdwatchers’ code and, where work with a greater potential for disturbance is planned, our Code of Ethics on Animal Research.

  • Authenticity and Purpose. Much of our research involves engaging with, and garnering the support of, the public in scientific research.  The aims, purpose and value of their participation must be clear and easy to understand. Overstating aims or ambitions could both undermine the value of other studies and citizen science more generally, as well as be misleading to the participant. Researchers must respect the participant’s volunteer time, allowing them to decide in full knowledge, the value of their of contribution.
  • Appropriate outcomes. The expected outcome must be clearly stated and achievable given the level of participation requested. Participants should expect that the biological data that they contribute are stored in a secure manner, and that they are analysed in a scientifically appropriate fashion and following the BTO’s Code of Good Scientific Practice. Their observations, and any results deriving from them, should be reported in a fair and balanced manner, paying due regard to any uncertainty or bias that may be present, and in a manner relevant to the particular audience to maximise its impact.
  • Inclusivity. Wherever possible, projects should be designed and promoted in a way that fosters inclusion and diversity thereby providing the opportunity for a wide range of people to participate.  For example, including elements that are a low skill level, do not require travel, do not require technical or expensive equipment, allows survey data to be submitted by paper, etc. Where a certain level of skill is necessary, there should be support and opportunities for participants to acquire knowledge and develop their skills to the required level.
  • Respect. Respect for the dignity of persons and peoples is one of the most fundamental ethical principles. Whatever level of skill a participant brings, they should feel welcome and supported.  Their effort should be appreciated, however small, and never undermined.

  • Consent. Participation should be in full knowledge and consent of the terms of their involvement, which should be clearly explained at the outset

  • Privacy. Participants should be assured that personal data will be handled and stored in accordance with current legislation, as outlined in our Privacy Policy, and only collected where it is necessary for scientific purposes and data verification. 

  • Data Quality. The quality of data collected is paramount; our Statement on Data Quality outlines ways in which this is achieved. Data validation is often necessary to ensure data quality and such mechanisms should be transparent and clearly communicated, with realistic expectations set for the use of data that fail such validation. To ensure the effective use of volunteer effort, researchers should communicate clearly the purpose and methods of gathering data and provide an accessible and reliable means of submitting the data through an appropriate channel.

  • Data Ownership. Consideration will be given to the project’s intellectual property, and to sharing and ownership of the data, following the BTO Policy on Data and Information, both to avoid disagreement between collaborators, and ensure the effective potential use and impact of the data.

  • Recognition. Appropriate acknowledgement of the significant contribution of volunteers should be included in all communications relating to the project and its results.  Feedback to contributors, in particular, should be personal, relevant and timely.

Ethical approval procedure

The BTO expects all work undertaken to be of high quality, using suitable data and tools to draw appropriate conclusions and inferences, as governed by the Statement of BTO Quality Management Process. In order to maintain BTO’s high ethical standards of citizen science research, the ethical implications of all new projects involving volunteers are considered through an independent assessment by senior project managers in the organisation, to ensure they comply with these guidelines and any ethical risks that may arise are identified; these risks may be higher in the situations outlined by the Economic and Social Research Council. The Senior Leadership Team will review proposed mitigation measures to ensure they proportionate and appropriate. Where a full ethics review is required, these will be considered by members of the Board of Trustees' Governance & Risk Committee to ensure they comply with the guidelines set out above.

Complaints Procedure

BTO takes ethics and ethical standards very seriously and expects all staff, as part of its Code of Good Scientific Practice, to follow best practice. Any complaint of misconduct in research regarding the ethical review process must be made in writing to the Director of Finance and Services for an initial assessment of the nature and severity of the complaint. Any action that is deemed necessary will follow BTO’s established misconduct procedures.

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