The Ethics of Open-Source Data in Community Science

By Eve Lynch, Communications Intern

Community science, also known as citizen science, is an increasingly popular scientific research method involving the public in collecting and analyzing data. This approach has gained traction due to its ability to gather extensive data while engaging individuals in scientific exploration. Anyone with a phone can create an iNaturalist account and record observations in an open-source science community platform that can be used as data points for real science. Downloading the Seek app and connecting your iNaturalist account to it can help you identify things you are curious about in real time using face identification technology just by pointing your phone at it.

These tools are accessible to everyone with a smartphone. The data helps scientists study species distributions and habitats and track how different species are responding to factors like climate change. It is a positive tool that can help scientists crowd-source data collection while at the same time engage the public in natural science.

A screenshot of the iNaturalist project called “Sonoma County Plants”. It contains a map of the county and the various data points of people’s plant observations with community science.

Pictured here is a screenshot of a community science project I created in iNaturalist several years ago for the purpose of studying phenophases of plants in the area called Sonoma County Plants.

The Impact of Community Science on Species Conservation

The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP) is a prominent example of community science’s positive impact. This project, initiated in the late 1990s, enlists volunteers to monitor monarch butterfly eggs and larvae on Milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) in various settings. Scientists can assess the health and abundance of monarch populations over time by collecting data on critical factors such as larval numbers, size, and survival rates. Such information informs conservation strategies, including habitat restoration and protection, and enhances understanding of environmental stressors affecting monarchs, such as climate change and pesticide use. The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently decided to list the monarch butterfly as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, providing more resources and protections for these iconic insects. This project was predominately powered by community scientists who contributed to this data set that policy makers used to benefit a species.

Glowing Golden Chanterelle mushrooms lay on display alongside other mushrooms found at a mushroom foray.

Cantharellus californicus is sometimes called California Chanterelle or Golden Chanterelle. This prized culinary mushroom has a mycorrhizal partnership with our Coast Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia) and is always a delight to encounter on one of Pepperwood’s seasonal mushroom forays.

Unintended Consequences of Community Science and Open-Source Data

Following a wild mushroom identification class at Pepperwood, many participants shared captivating mushroom images on social media and community science platforms. Subsequently, there was a surge in trespassing incidents on Pepperwood’s private property. This sequence of events prompts reflection on a growing issue related to data use and misuse within our culture. Community science can lead to conflicts with private property rights when individuals employ data outside the intended scientific context. This situation can facilitate undesirable outcomes, including illegal poaching, unethical wildcrafting, and trespassing on private property. Consequently, it raises a crucial question: How can we responsibly engage in community science while upholding the rules to safeguard the sensitive species we study?

Respecting Private Property Rights

Pepperwood, like many other reserves, preserves, and conservation properties, has restrictions to access to protect people and safeguard its resources. Active scientific experiments are ongoing throughout the property, with some spanning over a decade. Preserving the integrity of these experiments necessitates implementing barriers to access, as even something as simple as leaving a gate open could disrupt test sites by allowing cows to trample and graze. 

Numerous community science projects involve gathering data on plants, animals, and organisms found on private property. It is imperative to seek permission from landowners before conducting research in such cases. Not getting permission can result in potential legal consequences and strained relationships between scientists and landowners. Additionally, it is important to honor any guidelines or instructions set by landowners to ensure respectful visitation of their property.

Furthermore, ensuring the safety of individuals, particularly during fire season, is very important. Granting permission to access private property allows for accurate headcounts, enabling efficient rescue operations if necessary. Given Pepperwood’s history of wildfire incidents, a vigilant community mindset is maintained during fire season to look out for one another.

A screenshot of the safety prompt given for every single community science observation through the Seek app that asks the observer to be mindful of their surroundings as they post.

A screenshot of the gentle reminder prompt by the Seek app, which appears every time participants upload an observation.

Guidelines for Contributing to Open-Source Data Safely

When sharing pictures on social media or community science platforms, it’s important to remember that these images can be used for both positive and negative purposes. To avoid strangers trespassing on your property, refrain from posting pictures of desired mushrooms in your backyard along with location information. You can obscure the location by stating it’s from the broader area of Sonoma County without significantly affecting the scientific value of the data.

Always ask permission from the private property owner before making observations on their land and respect their terms. Prioritize your safety and respect for the land and the owners. By downloading the Seek app, you will receive prompts regarding safety and legal responsibilities, such as private property rights, for every community science post you make to iNaturalist. This mindful approach benefits everyone involved and helps protect the places we cherish.

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