Who owns citizen science?

Professor Teresa Scassa

From the search for intergalactic objects with smart phones to the transcription of handwritten 19th-century weather reports for a more accurate picture of climate change, researchers are increasingly looking to the crowd to make meaningful contributions to scientific research.

These and thousands of other projects currently underway are part of a trend known as citizen science — where members of the public engage in scientific research on their own time.

“The Internet and other digital technologies like mobile phones make it possible for scientists and citizens to interact in more ways than ever before,” says Teresa Scassa, professor of Common law at the University of Ottawa and Canada Research Chair in Information Law. “The number of ways in which scientists now look to average citizens for assistance is amazing, in data gathering, in transcription and in problem solving, to name just a few.”

Citizen science yields new knowledge by providing access to more numerous and varied observations and data than traditional scientific research. But scientist-citizen interactions are also complex, particularly in light of legal issues such as rights to access, dissemination and the use of the researcher’s output. In other words, who owns the inventions, ideas or data that come out of citizen science?

“That’s what we are trying to figure out,” says Scassa, who is a member of the federal government’s Advisory Panel on Open Government. “Citizen science projects raise interesting intellectual property and privacy issues, and I think one of the biggest challenges in this area is finding the interdisciplinary base from which to understand these very complex issues.”

The professor has made a career of working in highly interdisciplinary areas and is ideally suited to tackle such a challenge.

“I have really immersed myself in interdisciplinary work over the past several years, working with scholars in diverse related fields. These networks of relationships allow me to pose questions, do research, and analyze problems that I simply would not have been able to several years ago,” says Scassa, who recently obtained a research contract on the intellectual property implications of citizen science from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Her current research aims to identify the myriad of legal issues that may arise in citizen science projects and provide a way of thinking about what kinds of rights issues should be anticipated in the design and implementation of such projects.

“We are then going to go even further and look at public expectations,” she explains.

Given its collaborative nature, the citizen science movement is not only generating new and exciting discoveries, but also expectations from participants that their contributions will be publicly available and accessible. Scassa’s aim is to help manage these expectations so that collaborative science can move forward —productively, ethically and responsibly.


by Sean Rushton

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