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Q&A: “Citizen Science for Social Science”

Extended answers from Evan Roberts (ER), panelist from “The Promise and Pitfalls of Citizen Science,” Panel 3: Community Perspectives

Question: What advice or suggestions do you have for developing ethical approaches to citizen science work?
ER: I think the foundation of ethical approaches are an open relationship with people from as early as possible in the process. Researchers decide to use citizen science approaches because it is potentially beneficial in some way. A useful way to think of this may be more accurate for lower cost, or some appropriate trade-off there. It could be slightly less accurate at much lower cost. But researchers need to ask who is bearing those costs? And what are people outside the research community potentially gaining. You can only learn this by being upfront with communities you engage with about what you are trying to do, and how the community (citizens) can play a role. Then citizens have a chance to decide whether they want to join with you with full (or full enough) information. Be clear about uncertainties too, so that people aren't surprised if things turn out differently. All of this is largely trying to apply to citizen science and social science the general principles of good ethical research: respect for persons, beneficience, and justice. 

Question: Were there inequalities in the social surveys? Were all local people involved? Or was class, race, gender an issue?
ER: Yes, many inequalities. In general, these social surveys were designed to study class inequality. They were often particularly concerned with income and wealth issues. They uncovered issues with gender, particularly the treatment of women in work, and the burden of childcare on working women. There was a lot of variation in how racial issues were handled and recognized. Some were concerned with differences between European ethnic groups. To modern readers there is an essentialization of economic status, often seen in a belief that newer immigrants would remain relatively poor (e.g. Italian immigrants). There were fewer surveys of African American communities, but in general those that were done were well done. They didn't use the language of structural racism that we might use today, but they documented that. Probably the biggest divide in who got to contribute their perspectives was English-language ability and education. 

Question: What do you think is lost in moving to student labor? Is there less investment, perhaps, in the questions asked or the responses generated?
ER: Yes, students are often less invested in spending additional time to develop relationships when doing social research on the ground. Particularly for undergraduate students this work will occur in the context of a 15 week semester, and there is limited time to develop relationships with people in a neighborhood, for example. Much of that challenge is related to greater demands on the average students' time. They have more employment hours, are often taking high course loads. And so engagement with community research which takes time appears (and does!) to lack immediate pay-off. This is to say that the challenges with (particularly) undergraduate student research in contemporary settings is a structural one around course loads, employment, student debt, pressure to get good grades, and absolutely not a reflection on the character of "youth today". It is therefore incumbent on the professor to structure the course to reward effort at engagement, and put time in themselves to help students see what they can learn.