Reciprocity in Research through Citizen Scientists’ perspective

Nipu Kumar Das
8 min readJul 14, 2020


Authors: Anirban Roy, Nipu Kumar Das, Nabasmita Malakar, Deeke Doma Tamang (All the authors have contributed equally)

Reciprocity is an important concern in the research that simply means a proper model or policy from which the participants directly or indirectly get benefited or compensated for their valuable time, effort, experiences, and wisdom (Trainor and Bouchard, 2013). The National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), a US-based government organization, have defined the concept of reciprocity as ‘what people deserve as a function of what they have contributed to an enterprise or to society’. There is always asymmetry (unequal remuneration) in this regard that can be seen between the researchers and participants due to ignorance of the former.

Citizen Science (CS) is a currently much promoted and well-funded approach that seeks to stimulate the public to support scientists and vice versa. A study by Ganzevoort et al. (2017) revealed that citizen scientists play a pivotal role in providing necessary biodiversity data and they have high expectations regarding the impact of their data, both for their own learning as well as for science and management. It has also been reported that the motivations of citizen scientists are diverse and include a general interest in a specific species or question, involvement in a community with similar interests, recognition for personal achievements, learning new skills and contributing to environmental activism (Tulloch et al., 2013). In most cases, Citizen scientists are amateur naturalists and non-professionals. However, researchers/people should not see them as unpaid volunteers or free labourers. Their invaluable contributions should be appreciated and recognized in the scientific community (Lepczyk et al., 2020).

Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) is a classic example of a citizen science which focuses on monitoring global biodiversity data in an online platform. The contributions of citizen scientists to GBIF is remarkable. Birds are the most frequently recorded taxon in GBIF with close to 300M data. (Chandler et al., 2016). iNaturalist is also another example to map and share biodiversity info globally. The India Biodiversity Portal (, the ongoing citizen science project that collects biodiversity data (including photographs, georeferencing, locality information of both flora and fauna), is solely dependent on the contribution of common people or citizens (Vattakaven et al., 2016). This portal is free and has an open-access facility embedded in it, resulting in anyone from anywhere can access and harvest the information easily. Likewise, the Butterflies of India website ( is an online peer-reviewed resource that comes under the project namely Biodiversity Atlas-India, dedicated for the diverse butterflies found in the Indian region (Kunte et al., 2020). In addition, there are many taxon-specific citizen science ongoing projects in India, viz. Amphibians of India, Birds of India, Cicadas of India, Moths of India, Odonata of India, Reptiles of India etc, which are particular to the respective taxa.

Undeniably the relationship between Researchers and Citizen Scientists is through the pursuit of Scientific interest. For scientific researchers, the citizen scientists provide them a scope to design projects that are tedious and nearly impossible to be done quickly and efficiently (without the latter), while for the citizen scientists, these scientific efforts can provide fun, a sense of community, and the opportunity to contribute to science (Wiederhold, 2011). In a similar study by Cohn (2008), the author has reported that the healthy association between a researcher and a citizen scientist can broaden the scope of research and enhance the ability to collect scientific data. In the context of field-based research, it has been observed in many instances that the field assistants (essentially, a citizen scientist) have meticulous knowledge of the landscape, spatio-temporal aspects of species composition, and instrument handling. They might lack scientific expertise, but their practical experience is helpful for the concerned researcher to conduct the experiment. In addition to that, social scientists have always witnessed the myriads of socio-linguistic support that the citizen scientists provide while surveying, interacting and interviewing the target population. But what can a scientist do to ensure the collaboration with citizen scientists be as right as rain? According to Brian Mitchell, an NPS ecologist in Woodstock, Vermont, “The scientists who design research projects have to write study protocols that take citizen scientists into account.” (Cohn, 2008). In a similar perspective, quoting from Bonney et al. (2016), “We find limited but growing evidence that citizen science projects achieve participant gains in knowledge about science knowledge and process, increase public awareness of the diversity of scientific research, and provide deeper meaning to participants’ hobbies.”- it, therefore, can be surmised that the engagement of citizen scientists can contribute to a better social well-being by permitting them to be vocal about their scientific perceptions.

Ethics in research provides guidelines or standards to it in a responsible manner. These guidelines are followed through a professional code of conduct, for example at the university level it is enforced by the university committee. If the research ethics are not explicitly specified, the professional conduct of science anticipates researchers to abide by the general principles set by the scientific community. The research ethics is important as it strengthens the quality of research, avoids fabrication or falsification of data, maintains the integrity of norms or principles of scientific conduct, and helps in decision making concerning what is right and wrong. Reflecting on ethical issues moreover changes the researcher’s attitude towards participants which helps in considering the participants’ perspectives and needs during the study (Paolettti, 2014).

Research methodology is the vital part in any study which involves the data collection procedures. In social sciences, mostly data collection involves the people’s experiences, perspectives, and opinions therefore it is necessary to understand ethics involved in research methodology (Palmer 2014). Ethics in research methodology that researchers should consider dealing with human subjects are 1. Informed consent: It involves the voluntary agreement to participate in research where participants should be aware of research and risks involved. The researchers do not coerce participants into agreeing to participate (Barrow and Khandhar, 2019). 2. Beneficence: it involves the benefit of others while promoting their welfare and safety. The main aspects of beneficence are the participants’ right to freedom from harm and discomfort and rights to protection from exploitation 3. Anonymity and confidentiality: The researchers are bound to protect the privacy of human subjects (Coffelt, 2017). There should not be an invasion of shared private information such as participant’s beliefs, opinions, records, and attitudes without their consent or knowledge (Fouka and Mantzorou, 2011). 4. Right to Withdraw: The participants should always have the right to withdraw at any stage in the research process. 5 Deceptive practices: Researchers should avoid deceptive practices unless it’s justifiable.

Ethical issues can arise at any phase of the research process; it can emerge during data collection, data transcription, and analysis, and at dissemination of research work (Paolettti, 2014). The involvement of citizen scientists or participants in research work has its advantages and challenges. Ethical issues or challenges that arise while considering citizen scientists are ensuring the quality of data, diversity and optimising participation, exploitation of volunteer participants, misconduct, misuse of public data and the public itself, and authorship and acknowledgement (lack of proper credit) (Resnik, 2019;

There are lots of examples in biodiversity research where involvement of citizen scientists leads to several new species discovery (Freitag et al., 2018; Schilthuizen et al., 2020). In some cases, reporting an observation of rare species may result in their special attraction and finally helps in listing and conservation policy making. The application of observation data in species distribution mapping is also another example.

The Rewards of being a citizen scientist in the field of Astronomy: Kim Hawtin from South Australia, who joined the SkyNet, a citizen science project led by the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR). Initially, he just wanted to participate in a project which helped process radio astronomy observations and imitate datasets. He started serving SkyNet by letting them use his computer when he was not using it. But he received special gratitude from ICRAR as the top contributor to the initiative in its first year. ICRAR Outreach and Education Manager Pete Wheeler said in an interview, “Without enthusiastic members like Mr. Hawtin, theSkyNet wouldn’t be nearly as successful,”. Hawtin was honored with a trip to the Murchison Radio-astronomy in Western Australia, home to two world-class radio telescopes, and the future site of the low-frequency portion of the Square Kilometer Array(SKA).

In recent times, the involvement and contributions of Citizen scientists’ especially in biodiversity research is becoming popular. The research fields such as biodiversity monitoring, species distribution, and conservation with other allied areas are gaining importance in the involvement of citizen science. Researchers try to utilize and incorporate their valuable knowledge in their research through various short to long term research projects. However, it is necessary for lead researchers to ensure the credibility of the data collected by Citizen scientists as lack of theoretical knowledge sometimes can be perilous. In conclusion, the ethics used in citizen science research is necessary to uphold the good relationships among researchers and the participants.

Literature cited:

  1. Barrow, J. M. and Khandhar, P. B. (2019). Research ethics. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.
  2. Bonney, R., Phillips, T.B., Ballard, H.L. and Enck, J.W. 2016. Can citizen science enhance public understanding of science?. Public Understanding of Science, 25(1): 2–16.
  3. Coffelt, T. (2017). Confidentiality and anonymity of participants. English Publications, 133.
  4. Chandler, M., See, L., Copas, K., Bonde, A.M., López, B.C., Danielsen, F., Legind, J.K., Masinde, S., Miller-Rushing, A.J., Newman, G. and Rosemartin, A. (2017). Contribution of citizen science towards international biodiversity monitoring. Biological Conservation, 213: 280–294.
  5. Cohn, J.P. (2008). Citizen Science: Can Volunteers Do Real Research?. Bioscience. 58(3): 192–197.
  6. Freitag, H., Pangantihon, C.V. and Njunjić, I. 2018. Three new species of Grouvellinus Champion, 1923 from Maliau Basin, Sabah, Borneo, discovered by citizen scientists during the first Taxon Expedition (Insecta, Coleoptera, Elmidae). ZooKeys, 754: 1–21.
  7. Fouka, G. and Mantzorou, M. (2011). What are the major ethical issues in conducting research? Is there a conflict between the research ethics and the nature of nursing?. Health science journal, 5(1): 3.
  8. Ganzevoort, W., van den Born, R.J.G., Halffman, W. and Turnhout, S. (2017). Sharing biodiversity data: citizen scientists’ concerns and motivations. Biodiversity and Conservation, 26: 2821–2837.
  9. Kunte, K., Sondhi, S. and Roy, P. (Chief Editors). (2020). Butterflies of India, v. 2.88. Indian Foundation for Butterflies.
  10. Lepczyk, C.A., Boyle, O.D. and Vargo, T.L.V. (2020). Handbook of Citizen Science in Conservation and Ecology. University of California Press, Oakland, California.
  11. Schilthuizen, M., Lim, J.P., van Peursen, A.D., Alfano, M., Jenging, A.B., Cicuzza, D., Escoubas, A., Escoubas, P., Grafe, U., Ja, J. and Koomen, P. (2020). Craspedotropis gretathunbergae, a new species of Cyclophoridae (Gastropoda: Caenogastropoda), discovered and described on a field course to Kuala Belalong rainforest, Brunei. Biodiversity data journal, 8. DOI: 10.3897/BDJ.8.e47484
  12. Trainor, A., and Bouchard, K.A. (2013). Exploring and developing reciprocity in research design. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(8): 986–1003,
  13. Tulloch, A.I., Possingham, H.P., Joseph, L.N., Szabo, J. and Martin, T.G. (2013). Realising the full potential of citizen science monitoring programs. Biological Conservation, 165: 128–138.
  14. Vattakaven, T., George, R., Balasubramanian, D., Réjou-Méchain, M., Muthusankar, G., Ramesh, B. and Prabhakar, R. (2016). India Biodiversity Portal: An integrated, interactive and participatory biodiversity informatics platform. Biodiversity Data Journal, 4: e10279.
  15. Wiederhold, K. (2011). Citizen Scientists Generate Benefits for Researchers, Educators, Society, and Themselves. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14 (12): 703–4.
  16. Paolettti, I. (2014). Introduction to the Special Issue:“Ethical Issues in Collecting Interactional Data”. Human Studies, 37(2), 167–178.
  17. Palmer, J., Fam, D., Smith, T. and Kilham, S. (2014). Ethics in fieldwork: Reflections on the unexpected. Qualitative Report, 19(28): 1–13.
  18. Resnik, D.B. (2019). Citizen scientists as human subjects: Ethical issues. Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 4(1).
  19. Parthenos, Challenges of conducting a citizen science project accessed on 10 July 2020.



Nipu Kumar Das

I am a PhD candidate at ATREE Bangalore. My research focuses on the systematics of Indian terrestrial malacofauna. #Researcher #Malacologist