Teresa Scassa - Blog

Wednesday, 18 February 2015 08:29

Intellectual Property Issues in Citizen Science

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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I am just back from the inaugural conference of the newly formed Citizen Science Association. If there were any doubt about the explosion of interest in citizen science, this conference, with its packed agenda and 600 registered attendees would lay it to rest.

Citizen science is a term whose definitional boundaries are constantly being expanded. It is sometimes also called public participatory scientific research, and broadly interpreted it could reach so far as to include open innovation. Like many other forms of collaborative and co-creative engagement, citizen science involves harnessing the labour or ingenuity of the crowd with a view to advancing scientific knowledge. Iconic citizen science projects range from eBird (involving the public in reporting and recording bird sightings), GalaxyZoo (engaging the public in classifying distant galaxies) and Nature’s Notebook (which asks the public to help track seasonal changes). Citizen science projects also stray into the biomedical realm and can cross commercial/non-commercial lines. PatientsLikeMe offers a forum for individuals to share information about their illnesses or medical conditions with researchers and with others with the same affliction. 23andMe provides individuals with information about their DNA (which participants contribute), and SNPedia provides individuals with resources to help them in interpreting their own DNA. But in addition to these more well-known projects, are thousands of others, on large and small scales across a range of scientific fields, and engaging different sectors of the public in a very broad range of activities and for a similarly broad spectrum of objectives.

My own interest in citizen science relates to the legal and ethical issues it raises. Not surprisingly, there are significant privacy issues that may be raised by various citizen science projects – and not just those in the biomedical sphere. There may also be interesting liability issues – what responsibility is engaged by researchers who invite volunteers to hike treacherous mountain trails to find and record data about elusive plant or animal species? Currently, my work is on intellectual property issues. Timed to coincide with the inaugural CitSci 2015 conference was the release of a paper I co-authored with Haewon Chung on intellectual property issues as between researchers and participants in citizen science. This paper was commissioned by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars Commons Lab, and we are continuing to expand our work in this area with the support of the Wilson Center.

Our paper invites participants and researchers to think about intellectual property in the context of citizen science, in large part because IP issues are so fundamental to the ability of researchers, participants, and downstream users to ultimately access, use and/or disseminate research results. Relationships between researchers and participants are not the only ones of importance in citizen science – we will expand beyond these in our future work. But these relationships are nonetheless fundamentally important in citizen science. To the extent that intellectual property law is about both the relationship of authors to their works and about the relationship of authors and others in relation to those works, these issues should be part of the design of citizen science projects.

Our paper, which is meant primarily for an audience of citizen science participants and researchers, develops a typology of citizen science projects from an IP point of view. We group citizen science projects into 4 broad categories defined by the type of contribution expected of participants. In some cases the nature and degree of participation makes it unlikely that participants will have any IP claims in their contributions to the project; in other cases, participants are regularly invited to contribute materials in which they may hold rights. We suggest that researchers think about these issues before launching their project with a view to avoiding complications later on, when they try to publish their research, decide to make their data fully open online, or make other dissemination plans. In some cases, the level of involvement of participants in problem-solving or data manipulation may also raise issues about their contribution to an invention that the researchers eventually seek to patent.

Identifying the IP issues is a first step – addressing them is also important. There are many different ways (from assignment of right to licensing) in which the IP rights of contributors can be addressed. Some solutions may be more appropriate than others, depending upon the ultimate goals of the project. In choosing a solution, researchers and project designers should think of the big picture: what do they need to do with their research output? Are there ethical obligations to open citizen science data, or to share back with the participant community? Do they have particular commitments to funders or to their institutions? Even if research data is made open, are there reasons to place restrictions on how the data is used by downstream users? These are important issues which have both a legal and an ethical dimension. They are part of our ongoing work in this area.

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