What is "Citizen's Science" ? Legally speaking


I am posing a very specific query

What do we mean by Citizen Science ? - Legally speaking.

My use of the word citizen here is tempered by this thread

However to be specific

I notice that on Inaturalist a lot of work has gone to ensure that the original observers always get prominent reference (as prominent as is reasonable). Their names are mentioned, the CC license is mentioned etc whenever their observations are used in any form via Inaturalist tools.

I think inaturalist even takes it a step further (or not) as in this example of a “Butterfly Guide” where credit has even been given to the person "compiling other people’s observations complete CC license as well . Of course every single work is duly credited there.

(I said “or not” because am not sure I should get much credit for using a pre-existing tool that helps compile data. )

The reason for my query is that I have observed portals calling themselves “Citizen science” - when in fact their licensing is neither “open” nor is their source. The definition of citizen science means making it technically possible to accept contribution from others - no sharing of knowledge or interaction between people - exept maybe id’ing species posted there. (no comments / messaging section , no forum)

While they invite contributions from the “public” their licensing is like a typical Authorship reference with no specific mention of the contributor (yes each photograph in the set is tagged with species name, observers name, a date , a place and a © Copyright mark )

The © seemingly being a convenient “copyright mentioned don’t ask more about how it can or can’t be used” More likely a cave usor to avoid any responsibility.

For example if i visit a page for a particular species below is sample “licensing / reference i get prominently displayed”

Cite this page along with its URL as:
Anonymous. 2021. Some species. In Author 1, Author 2, and Author 3 (Chief Editors). Some taxa of India, Some Agency Name. http://someurl/some species

(Please forgive me that I have redacted the exact URL but am not sure any of the authors are on this forum hence not naming them or the actual site)

This particular page may have only a few pictures but in some cases the pictures run to 10’s or even 100’s for some genera

In every case the reference is the same Static one as shown above.

None of the “contributing Citizens” get appropriate credit and only the established “experts” have their name plastered enough times to indicate who are the real “citizens” so to speak.

So legally speaking how does one define citizen’s science

In anticipation


without seeing the site - hard to tell - but it sounds as if the site scrapes photos across the internet. And removes the attribution and the actual copyright. That is violation of copyright, not citizen science.


I’m not aware of any legal definition of “citizen science” (or “community science,” etc).

You might want to check out this article about a paper advocating for coauthorship for citizen scientists, at least two of the paper’s coauthors are iNat users. Unfortunately the paper itself is behind a paywall.

1 Like

That’s pretty ironic!


i think you might be confusing a licensing / copyright statement with a citation. these are different things. the statement you’ve quoted in your post above is a suggested citation, and looks to me like a legitimate way to cite a particular collection of observations (maybe except the “Anonymous” part). (we discussed something similar in Looking for advice on how to cite a project - General - iNaturalist Community Forum.)

if you were to want to cite a specific observation from the set, then that would be different.


I do know in the past it has been common to acknowledge people who took part in gathering data for a research project - not as authors, but at the end. I would think that a person contributing data would not be eligible for authorship, but some recognition might be nice. It’s such a new field, I don’t think all the legal ramifications or etiquette have been worked out yet.


This may not be exactly what you’re looking for, but the US government has a website on citizen science https://www.citizenscience.gov/about/#general

…based on 2016 legislation https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/6414/text

… which defines “citizen science” as

The term “citizen science” means a form of open collaboration in which individuals or organizations participate voluntarily in the scientific process in various ways, including-

(A) enabling the formulation of research questions;

(B) creating and refining project design;

© conducting scientific experiments;

(D) collecting and analyzing data;

(E) interpreting the results of data;

(F) developing technologies and applications;

(G) making discoveries; and

(H) solving problems.


Lewis Carroll had this to say in Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

Citizen Science is not a description, it is a catch phrase that rolls easily off the tongue (for speakers of English, at least) and is easy to remember; it isn’t about the scientific method or citizenship any more than Apple is about apples.

For myself, I think that the moniker iNaturalist is a much better description of what goes on in the site than citizen or community science. It’s actually quite apt. The various neologisms that have cropped up (to iNat, iNatting) will undoubtedly be joined by others. I’m plumping for to iNatter, meaning to blather incessantly about your iNaturalist observations. I like iNaturalism, although I’m a bit vague on what it should mean. My wife thinks I can be an iNut at times.


Hi @pisum

You are correct in identifying the separation. However that is one of my questions - At what stage does material “advertised for as such & gathered” belong to the collector (inaturalist or anyone else) as intellectual ownership and why does not the observer get a “equal proportionate right” for having taken the effort to document with meta data.

I think the “Citations” that ignore contributions when the whole “research body so to speak” is based on those very same “contributions” is quite unfair

I read this as well [quote=“pisum, post:5, topic:19736”]
Looking for advice on how to cite a project - General - iNaturalist Community Forum.)

Here I see that some one has tried to make a distinction between where additional material has been in the form of a journal, or posts or some of the data has been curated to say that the site admin’s should be authors. So here the “effort” is the question - the time to make one observation - one of 1000’s, versus some other effort to curate and analyse, draw some conclusions. The key question is Would the latter be possible without the former (set of observations). I think the answer is No. Without that data set of observations there would be no article and there would be no citation.

Why should this be different - because one picture / observation is used - I don’t see why the logic should not apply for all / or many such observations. Each providing a valuable data point.

I understand the “unwieldiness” of maybe 1000’s of names when using inaturalist data. But take away the observations and the “admin / chief editors” are left with nothing


1 Like

you can cite every single observation, if appropriate, but the point of a citation is not necessarily (just) to offer credit but to provide a way to direct someone to the original source of the data that inspired you.

suppose you were to cite a film. if i wanted to go see the same film, i would need to know the title, the director, and the year of release at least. if you took particular inspiration from a particular actor’s performance, you could include the actor in your citation so that i could pay special attention to it. or if you wanted to point to the camera work, you could include the DP in your citation. but if you didn’t take particular inspiration from a particular actor, then there’s no need to cite that actor, even if the part was critical to the film, and there’s no need to cite an executive producer either, even if the film would not have been made without that person. the truth is that if i can find and watch the film, the film itself will credit all the people that contributed to the film.

similarly, if your citation of the website can lead me to the website, then the website itself should provide the appropriate credit for individual observations and their observers.


@pisum - that is an excellent explanation, Thank you for the time taken it settles a lot in my mind.

It also addresses one problem - that the website is being referred to and not an individual (or sets of) and thereby whoever has done whatever gets credit - curators compiling lists of and making journal entries and posts of say hard to id taxa or the individuals (and groups of observers).



This topic was automatically closed 60 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.