Several recent blog posts and a session at Scio13 (discussed here) have addressed ethical issues in citizen science. Ethics in research is taken extremely seriously in academia: every single research project that involves human subjects gets reviewed by an independent committee (an Institutional Review Board, IRB) before it begins.

When citizen science involves human subjects, it has to play by the same rules – even when it seems like there is no possible ethical conflict. When projects don’t follow these steps, it can come back to haunt them – a recent example is the issue for uBiome, who have been criticized because they did not seek IRB review of their research protocols until after the completion of their crowdfunding campaign to sequence the human microbiome. Research on animals comes under similarly strict ethical review, and so the recent uBiome kerfuffle had me wondering about how to handle my ethical responsibilities in a new citizen science project I’m about to launch with birds.

In the expanding scope of citizen science, thousands of natural history projects involve vertebrates. At the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, our citizen science projects enlist tens of thousands of volunteers in following protocols that range from tallying birds in the woods to tallying eggs in a nest. The protocols for these projects have been reviewed and approved by Cornell’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) to ensure we’re in accordance with all applicable federal, state and local regulations on human safety and humane treatment of animals.

Clearly context matters. When people watch birds, they are carrying out a hobby. When citizen science participants watch birds and submit their data to the Cornell Lab, they are collaborating in research and that’s why our IACUC-approved protocols have them covered. For example, before people can monitor nests for our NestWatch program, they have to get certified by passing a test about the NestWatch code of conduct for minimizing disturbance of nests while collecting highly valued data. A related study found that the performance of volunteers monitoring nests was equal to Smithsonian biologists in causing no negative effects on nesting success.

Nest monitoring projects at the Lab have a long history, beginning in the 1960s, and the protocols and ethics are well established. But a new project I’m launching is a little more complicated. The upcoming House Sparrow project addresses some basic science questions and a conservation question about how to control this invasive species. Controlling invasive species does NOT involve NestWatch protocols of minimizing disturbance of nests, but quite the contrary, involve disturbing nests.

For the conservation experiment, the aim is to determine the effectiveness of common practices to minimize house sparrow populations, or at least reduce their use of nest boxes. House Sparrows are a tremendously successful invasive species: they were introduced to North America over a century ago and are now one of the most common birds in the world. One reason house sparrows have been so successful is they are aggressive about claiming nest sites, sometimes killing native birds to take over their nest box.

Many factors affect native bird populations, but for bluebirds, the collective efforts of people putting up bird houses for nesting has had an enormous positive influence on populations of Eastern, Mountain, and Western bluebirds. Some people put up a few boxes in their backyard; others establish trails of hundreds of nest boxes. As landlords of bird houses for bluebirds, if house sparrows move in, many people find ways to evict them. Consequently, people direct a great deal of time and energy in deterring and destroying house sparrows. I want to find out whether all this effort has any measurable effect on house sparrow use of nest boxes. The most effective methods may be site-specific, so the needed replication is possible with citizen science methods.

The vast majority of birds in North America are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but house sparrows, as non-native species, are not. Thus, no federal or state permits are required for individuals to manage house sparrows. In some ways, this makes house sparrows a convenient study species for citizen science research. Our conservation experiment will explicitly evaluate so-called “passive” sparrow management techniques, such as modifying boxes to deter house sparrows, removing sparrow nests as they are built, and removing eggs. Since our research protocols involve nest disturbance, we are waiting for IACUC review and approval. Yet, the lack of legal protection of sparrows means that people, outside of our project, have no guidelines regarding treatment of house sparrows, and that’s where my ethical quandary arises.

Even though our protocol involves only passive management practices, many bluebirders also actively manage house sparrows—meaning they trap or shoot adult house sparrows to remove them from the population. These activities are NOT related to my project or any other projects at the Cornell Lab, and it’s pretty unlikely that such a volunteer project would pass IACUC review.

But active management happens. My conundrum is: can I study it? Without collecting data on active management practices, we have no way of knowing how they affect population dynamics. But, if I collect information from people who carry out active management, do they de facto become our citizen science participants? If so, they become participants not following our protocols. IACUC only provides ethical oversight for the practices in our research protocols. When I get to the stage of publishing results, a journal, however, may object to data on active management because it was not part of our IACUC-approved protocols. How do I go about studying their activities without sanctioning those activities?

I’m not interested in making judgments here about the ethics of house sparrow management, which is a separate, complex issue. I’m interested in a better understanding of the ethic of research. So, I call for opinions from citizen science practitioners, participants, ethicists, and others: (how) can I study active management by others in a citizen science context?

Images: House Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird.