Citizen science is the name given to a kind of crowd-sourced public participatory scientific research in which professional researchers benefit from the distributed input of members of the public. Citizen science projects may include community-based research (such as testing air or water quality over a period of time), or may involve the public in identifying objects from satellite images or videos, observing and recording data, or even transcribing hand written notes or records from previous centuries. Some well-known citizen science projects include eBird, Eyewire, FoldIt, Notes from Nature, and Galaxy Zoo. Zooniverse offers a portal to a vast array of different citizen science projects. The range and quantity of citizen science experiences that are now available to interested members of the public are a testament both to the curiosity and engagement of volunteers as well as to the technologies that now enable this massive and distributed engagement.
Scientific research of all kinds – whether conventional or involving public participation – leads inevitably to the generation of intellectual property (IP). This may be in the form of patentable inventions, confidential information or copyright protected works. Intellectual property rights are relevant to the commercialization, exploitation, publication and sharing of research. They are important to the researchers, their employers, their funders, and to the research community. To a growing extent, they are of interest to the broader public – particularly where that public has been engaged in the research through citizen science.
What IP rights may arise in citizen science, how they do so, and in what circumstances, are all issues dealt with by myself and co-author Haewon Chung in a paper released in December 2015 by the Commons Lab of the Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. Titled Best Practices for Managing Intellectual Property Rights in Citizen Science, this paper is a guide for both citizen science researchers and participants. It covers topics such as the reasons why IP rights should be taken into account in citizen science, the types of rights that are relevant, how they might arise, and how they can be managed. We provide an explanation of licensing, giving specific examples and even parse license terms. The paper concludes with a discussion of best practices for researchers and a checklist for citizen science participants.
Our goal in preparing this report was to raise awareness of IP issues, and to help researchers think through IP issues in the design of their projects so that they can achieve their objectives without unpleasant surprises down the road. These unpleasant surprises might include realizing too late that the necessary rights to publish photographs or other materials contributed by participants have not been obtained; that commitments to project funders preclude the anticipated sharing of research results with participants; or that the name chosen for a highly successful project infringes the trademark rights of others. We also raise issues from participant perspectives: What is the difference between a transfer of IP rights in contributed photos or video and a non-exclusive license with respect to the same material? Should participants expect that research data and related publications will be made available under open licenses in exchange for their participation? When and how are participant contributions to be acknowledged in any research outputs of the project?
In addition to these issues, we consider the diverse IP interests that may be at play in citizen science projects, including those of researchers, their institutions, funders, participants, third party platform hosts, and the broader public. As citizen science grows in popularity, and as the scope, type and variety of projects also expands, so too will the IP issues. We hope that our research will contribute to a greater understanding of these issues and to the complex array of relationships in which they arise.
Note: This research paper was funded by the Commons Lab of the Wilson Center and builds upon our earlier shorter paper: Typology of Citizen Science Projects from an Intellectual Property Perspective: Invention and Authorship Between Researchers and Participants. Both papers are published under a Creative Commons Licence.