On September 30th, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015. The purpose of this bill is “to harness the expertise, ingenuity, and creativity of all people to contribute to innovation in the United States and to help solve problems or scientific questions by encouraging and increasing the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science methods within the Federal Government, as appropriate, and for other purposes.”
This is a bill worth celebrating.
Despite tremendous progress for crowdsourcing and citizen science in government—most recently recognition from the white house; and, the growth of an important federal community of practice—doubts about the legitimacy of crowdsourcing and citizen science remain. The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) is still a barrier to timely implementation. The question of who will make initial and ongoing financial investments in citizen science is open. Passing this bill will help resolve lingering doubts about the value of citizen science in government agencies.
In addition to signaling progress, the bill highlights important considerations to stimulate future efforts.
- Understanding ethics in citizen science and crowdsourcing. The Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015 defines a citizen science participant as “any individual or other entity that has consented as a volunteer in a crowdsourcing or citizen science project.” Beyond this, the Act points to considerations including mode of consent as electronic or written; data ownership and access rights; and, adherence to regulations for conducting human subjects research. Generally, the Act leaves decisions to agencies themselves (e.g., regarding consent) or lets difficult issues remain open (e.g., by failing to specify whether and when citizen science and crowdsourcing are human subjects research).
- The importance of designing projects with motivation in mind. Motivation is one of the most commonly studied, yet least understood, concepts in citizen science. We are aware of a handful of high-level motivational factors (including learning; attribution and recognition; socialization; and, altruism, as highlighted in the Act). But less is known about how motivation changes between cultures, how motivation changes over time, how motivation depends on different application domains, and how technologies such as games may motivate new and different volunteers.
- Documenting partnership models. Agencies are encouraged to cooperate with one another, and to work with organizations including for-profits, nonprofits, and NGOs to “share administrative duties” for citizen science. The federal citizen science projects that are most successful at achieving their goals typically forge partnerships with universities, museums, schools, and other institutions. Articulating successful partnership models that others may replicate will go a long way towards supporting sustainability for the field within and outside of government.
A smooth and expedient passage of the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2015 will not only legitimize this important research paradigm, but usher in new research on these and other important issues.