Ethics and releases

Ethics and releases
by Trinity College Dublin

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Understand the need for ensuring good ethical practice in research
  • Understand and identify the potential risks involved in citizen science, and how to prevent them

Why Ethics?

Put simply, the need for ethics is to ensure protection of the researcher, the subjects of study, and the institution within which the research is being carried out.

Ensuring ethical practices in research applies as much to the Humanities and Social Sciences as it does to STEM subjects, even if it looks slightly different.  In all subjects, protection of the researcher is just as important as protection of the individuals under study. The person or persons conducting the research still need to make sure that they are not risking their own wellbeing in order to carry out their research.  In the case of those working in a scientific lab, this can be something like disclosing personal circumstances that might mean they are at greater potential risk (pregnancy, on a new type of medication, etc), or simply making sure that correct protocols are followed such as wearing certain types of clothing, or following steps through in a particular order.  Within the Social Sciences and Humanities, this might include risk assessment when conducting one-on-one interviews.

Personal protection accounted for, the researcher then needs to protect the individuals under study.  Within the Social Sciences and Humanities, these individuals could be the person or people that are taking part, it could refer to an entire community of people, or it could mean inanimate objects.  For example, some historic artefacts can carry with them some spiritual connotations that are sacred to a specific community. Respect of those beliefs and therefore respect for the item is paramount.

Ethics in Citizen Science

The need for protection of the researcher, the subject and the institution is still the primary consideration when dealing with ethical requirements in a citizen science project.  However, as the number of ‘researchers’ can be far larger, and some of them may have no background in research practices, the need for clear guidelines and practices becomes more pressing.

Knowledge is power

As a lead researcher opening up research to a citizen science approach, you need to make sure that anyone who is participating in the research knows what is expected of them from an ethical viewpoint.  They will also need to know their rights, and the responsibilities they take on by taking part in the project. This can sound far more onerous than it need be. We are all very used to signing up to terms and conditions online, and many of us are guilty of skipping to the end just to tick the box.  A brief set of ‘community guidelines’ that outline these rights and responsibilities in as simple a way as possible can help to get the point across and make sure that your participants read them and understand them.

Sharing Authority

When a single researcher works with a body of sources, in general s/he maintains authority over how those sources are used and curated. This is a powerful position, in that it makes him or her the ultimate arbiter of what is or is not allowed to come forward and be a part of the argument or presentation of an event, perspective, person or other artefact of human culture.  This model does not necessarily extend comfortably into citizen science projects, where other perspectives and other voices, very differently informed from those of the professional historian, need to be effectively incorporated and affirmed.  This is a great challenge in citizen science projects, in particular those based upon co-creation, a challenge which is often discussed under the rubric of “shared authority.”


Sharing Authority, Ciaran O’Neill and Geogina Laraghy.

In this video, Public History experts CIaran O’Neill and Georgina Laraghy speak about the challenges of sharing and shared authority in public history projects.

Risk avoidance

None of your citizen scientists should be taking part in anything that potentially puts them at risk.  If there is a low level risk they should at the very least be informed of what that might be. For example, if a project is calling on public collection, providing letters or personal items to a project could result in a) the item being damaged or lost; or b) their identity, or the identity of someone close to them being revealed in some way, even if names are redacted from the data.

Ownership of their work

Giving your citizen scientist some means of maintaining ‘ownership’ of their work (in the metaphorical sense!) will make them more likely to comply with the proper procedures.

Case Study: Ethical considerations in the Transcribe Bentham project

Prof. Melissa Terras and Dr. Justin Tonra from the Transcribe Bentham project discuss how researchers in Crowdsourcing projects can ensure that they meet any Ethical challenges that might arise during the course of a Citizen Science project.

To find out more about the Transcribe Bentham project, visit:

Your progress through the "Citizen Science in the (Digital) Arts and Humanities" module