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Law and Policy

Legal and Policy Considerations

Citizen science and crowdsourcing are valuable approaches you can use to help fulfill your agency’s mission. Federal agencies and employees have a range of roles and responsibilities, so you will need to understand the legal constraints and applicable agency policies associated with agency work involving these approaches. Federal employees should therefore consult with agency legal counsels before undertaking citizen science and crowdsourcing projects to work with them throughout each phase of the project.

Certain non-federal resources have sought to identify relevant legal and regulatory issues federal agencies may confront when launching citizen science projects.

For instance, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has a Commons Lab within its Science and Technology Innovation Program that has commissioned a series of reports on various crowdsourcing activities, including one titled “Crowdsourcing, Citizen Science, and the Law: Legal Issues Affecting Federal Agencies.” Written by Robert Gellman, the report addresses some of the administrative, legal and ethical frameworks for using citizen science and crowdsourcing. You can download the report under its title at Legal Issues in Using Citizen Science and review the content with an interactive widget.

A 2015 workshop organized by the National Institutes of Health explored the ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) of citizen science.  These discussions identified the ELSI challenges raised by citizen science in the context of biomedical research and identified approaches that NIH can use to address these issues. The scope of the biomedical issues is quite broad, and includes a wide range of research related to the NIH mission (e.g., biological, biomedical, behavioral, social, environmental and clinical studies that relate to understanding health and disease).

The Citizen Science Central toolkit, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, contains a short summary of local laws, state laws, national laws, and other guidelines that govern the interactions between citizen science projects and their volunteers. It provides an introduction to legal and policy considerations, human subject research and liability issues. The site also offers a Data Policy Guide produced by DataONE.

A 2013 review article titled Tweeting Up a Storm provides an overview of the ethical, legal, policy, and security issues of crowdsourcing in the context of disaster response and humanitarian assistance. Many of the issues discussed are also relevant to other applications of crowdsourcing.

A 2013 Technical Report from the University of New Brunswick discusses the legal and data quality issues that arise when integrating volunteer-collected data with government datasets. The research investigates methods for assessing data quality and develops data integration strategies.

From an intellectual property perspective, the benefits and risks of crowdsourcing are discussed in a 2012 study. The paper addresses privacy/publicity rights and implied contract claims and how crowdsourcing projects can avoid pitfalls and minimize risk.

Publicly accessible medical data have the potential to yield numerous benefits as well as serious concerns regarding patient confidentiality. This 2014 article analyzes the benefits and risks of health data sharing and proposes balanced legislative, regulatory, and policy modifications to guide data disclosure and use.


Last updated: Feb 23, 2016