This manual aims to empower individuals in their roles as citizen scientists and to promote the practice of community-based citizen science as a vehicle for environmental justice.  It is our hope that this manual will increase your awareness of how to identify and contribute to existing projects or to initiate and effectively prove your own project.  To that end, this manual outlines practical suggestions for how to design and carry out a citizen science project.  It also contains an overview of relevant laws and regulations, as well as technical suggestions regarding data collection, analysis, and compliance with relevant scientific and quality standards.

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen science is community-driven science: science engaged in, by, and for the non-scientist populace.

The EPA has defined environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people . . . with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

Citizen science can be defined as a grassroots initiative in which ordinary citizens, sometimes in collaboration with professional scientists, organizations and government agencies, collect, generate, and distribute information either for educational purposes or to address community-centered environmental issues.  More simply, it is community-driven science: science engaged in, by, and for, the non-scientist populace.

There are multiple ways that individuals can get involved in citizen science projects, and these projects can take on a variety of configurations.  For example, individuals may choose to find and collaborate on pre-existing projects rather than start their own.  Existing projects are often offered by professional citizen science organizations, neighborhood organizations, environmental agencies, and local park and wildlife services.  Most existing projects have a specific, and often unique, focus that is set by the organization or agency conducting the project.  For instance, a project may be designed to assist with the collection or generation of information needed to support the work of a decision-maker or advocate or to motivate individuals to engage with nature and science.

Alternatively, individuals may design and initiate their own project, either for similar goals or with an eye toward regulatory or private enforcement of environmental laws.  Individuals may start by identifying an issue in their communities (e.g., groundwater pollution, lead contamination, high asthma rates), and then develop a plan to collect and analyze samples near potential sources of the problem.  They might then use these results to educate community members and decision-makers, including by submitting the results of their work to a regulatory agency (e.g., the local board of health or the state or federal Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") to petition the agency to take action necessary to protect the community (e.g., enforcement against a polluter).   

In short, citizen science projects are and can be organized for many different purposes and with many opportunities for varying levels of involvement.  Recognizing the many forms citizen science projects may take, this manual generally focuses on those projects designed to remediate environmental problems that threaten community health and well-being.

Example of Citizen Scientists in Action: In 2004, residents of Tonawanda, New York, home to some of the state’s largest industrial manufacturing facilities, noticed a marked decrease in local air quality and an increase in chronic health problems and banded together to form the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York.   They collected local air samples using simple air sensors readily available online, and their analysis of these samples revealed the presence of high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, in the town’s air.  The residents then presented this information to New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which worked with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to perform further air quality tests.  Once the state and federal agencies became involved, the local manufacturing facilities tightened operating procedures, ultimately decreasing benzene levels in the air by 86 percent. Many successful citizen science projects tend to follow the process demonstrated by this example.  A community of citizens comes together through grassroots organizing to identify and solve a problem through the collection or generation of information. They then leverage this information to gain traction with the relevant enforcement agencies and put pressure on the polluting parties to reform.

Technical and Legal Limitations of this Manual

It is important that you check the rules in the specific jurisdiction in which you carry out or are currently carrying out your project.

It is important that you seek to educate yourself about statutes, regulations, and ordinances specific to your own jurisdiction before setting off into the field to engage in sample collection.

This manual describes the legal and technical framework governing citizen science and offers practical suggestions.  These suggestions are general and not specific to your locale.  Nor are these suggestions comprehensive. It is important that you check the current rules in the specific jurisdiction in which you will carry out or are currently carrying out your project.  This manual provides references to resources for those seeking more information.  However, these resources are non-exhaustive and are subject to change.

Concerning legal suggestions:

Many of the laws referred to in this manual are administered and regulated at the state and local levels, with potentially significant differences across jurisdictions.  This manual does not attempt to compile and detail every state statute, local ordinance, or agency regulation that may be relevant to a citizen scientist’s efforts.  Instead, the manual is intended to give a broad overview of the relevant laws by distilling governing principles and common statutory elements across jurisdictions

This manual is primarily focused on citizen science projects that are directed at pollution concerns, and in particular, the environmental pollution of air, water, and soil.

Having canvassed these laws generally, the manual identifies types of laws that restrict citizen science – meaning laws that could result in a citizen scientist facing either criminal or civil liability for actions (such as trespass) not conducted in compliance with such law.  It is important that you seek to educate yourself about statutes, regulations, and ordinances specific to your own jurisdiction before setting off into the field to engage in sample collection.  The tools available in this guide will assist you in doing so.

Concerning technical suggestions: 

The problems addressed by citizen science projects are diverse.[1]  This manual is primarily focused on citizen science projects that are directed at environmental pollution concerns, and in particular, pollution of air, water, and soil.  However, many of the suggestions in this manual are highly generalizable.  If your project lies outside the focus of the manual, we recommend that you use the chapter headings and introductions to rapidly assess whether the content of the chapter will be relevant to your particular project.

Manual Overview

This manual is divided into six major chapters.  The needs of individual citizen scientists can differ greatly, and therefore, there are various ways in which the content of this manual might be presented.  We have chosen to structure the manual to reflect the sequence of steps that one might follow when initiating a new citizen science project.  But, we emphasize that no two projects will follow the exact same path from beginning to end.

The following graphic provides a visual representation of how the different chapters relate. This graphic highlights: (i) that there are many paths that can be taken from the beginning of a project ("Identify Project Focus") to completion of that project ("Goal: Information Use"); (ii) that the chapters of this manual are highly interrelated and need not be thought of as separate steps; and (iii) that many times citizen science projects are iterative: they may involve some cycling back to previous steps as new information is uncovered or if circumstances change.

Chapter 1, “Identifying Your Project’s Focus and Designing Its Approach,” describes the initial steps of a citizen science project.  This includes guidance on how the focus of your project, or the central environmental issue to which it is directed, should influence your project’s approach.    

Chapter 2, “Identifying Your Project’s Goals - Evaluating Potential Information Uses,” assists you in brainstorming the potential goals of your efforts before engaging in information collection or field research.  For example: Do you intend to give your data to a regulatory agency for use in an enforcement action?  Does that agency have the resources and political will to pursue such an enforcement action?  Are there other uses for your data that do not involve an agency enforcement action (e.g., community organizing, media attention)?  Your answers to these questions can shape the scope and direction for your project.

Chapter 3, “Information Collection: Gathering Publicly Available Information,” assists you in identifying what is already known about the problem with which you are concerned.  Specifically, it provides guidance on how to acquire publicly available information with respect to pollutants and pollutant sources.  After reading this chapter, you should know how to efficiently gather publicly available information and to determine whether or not it is sufficient to resolve the problem you have identified.

Chapter 4, “Information Generation: Potential Liability,” reviews potential legal limitations on information generation by citizen scientists as well as positive rights and privileges you can take advantage of to design the most effective project possible.  Think of this as a primer on which laws might be most relevant to citizen science.  While we anticipate that most readers will not encounter legal complications in conducting their projects, we nonetheless want to arm you with the knowledge and resources to carry out your project without fear of adverse consequences.  To that end, this chapter summarizes a wide range of legal issues like trespass, drone use, and privacy rights.  The analysis surveys the laws of all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico, highlighting similarities and differences across jurisdictions.  This chapter should be read in conjunction with the material in Appendices 1 and 2 of this manual, which compile specific state statutes and resources.  Ultimately, this chapter will help you begin to develop a sense of which actions you can take and which you should avoid, allowing you to plan your project more effectively.

Chapter 5, “Information Generation: Design of Sample Collection, Sample Analysis, and Data Interpretation Methodologies,” highlights ways of increasing the quality of new information that you generate from any field work that your project may involve.  Importantly, increasing the quality of the information you generate promotes its utility or usefulness.  This chapter also stresses the value of making this process a community endeavor.  For example, look for experts in your community who can help you overcome any technical hurdles you may encounter.

Finally, Chapter 6, “Information Use: Making the Most Out of Your Information,” provides a few examples of ways in which you can increase the value of the work that you have performed.

Use of This Manual

Citizen scientists have diverse needs that depend on the nature and status of the projects in which they are involved.  As such, we anticipate that readers will differ in how they will use this manual.  Some may read the manual from cover to cover; others will seek out specific topics.

While most of the examples and discussion provided in each chapter of this manual are geared toward helping citizen scientists begin and complete their own projects, the suggestions are applicable to all citizen science projects that are directed at air, water, and soil pollution concerns.  Thus, whether you are interested in finding and getting involved in an existing project or are already involved in an ongoing project, this manual can still be a valuable resource to you.

Below are examples of how readers may use this manual.

Individuals interested in initiating a citizen science project:  because the manual is structured to reflect the sequence of steps that one might follow when initiating a new citizen science project, these readers may benefit from reading the manual from cover to cover.

Volunteers who are seeking to join an ongoing citizen science project: because Chapter 1, “Identifying Your Project’s Focus and Designing Its Approach,” includes a section with resources for those interested in joining an ongoing project, people looking for a project to join may benefit from starting with this chapter. After joining a project, these readers can explore the chapters of the manual that are most relevant to their specific project roles.

Organizers, Project Managers and Volunteers who are currently engaged in a citizen science project: for these readers, the manual’s most useful content will likely relate to the project roles in which they are involved (e.g., project design, collecting samples, analyzing available data, interpreting results, preparing forms, disseminating a project’s results). These readers may refer to the table of contents and to the chapter headings and introductions to identify sections of the manual containing content that addresses their current project needs.

This manual is designed to be useful for readers with a broad range of technical and legal backgrounds.  Those who are just starting to learn about these topics may find it most useful to focus on the complete text of the chapters.  Readers who are more familiar with the issues, and those who possess a technical or legal background may prefer to spend more time investigating the references cited in the text and appendices.

Problem Solving as You Read: Some readers may not have a specific problem in mind as they review the contents of this manual.  Because reading the manual with a specific problem in mind may help highlight the relevance and application of the topics discussed, the following are hypothetical scenarios that you could consider when reading the manual:

First scenario:  Imagine that you have just retired and moved to Wyoming for the clean air and fresh water.  You bought a home on a hill overlooking and within a short distance of a river.  You are hankering for something to do in retirement and decide to become an observer of nature and the environment.  You soon learn that there are a couple of ranches near the area in which you have settled.  How would you initiate a project to monitor any potential pollution of the river associated with ranching activities?

Second scenario:  Imagine that you live in a small Pennsylvania community.  Many individuals in your community are suffering from headaches and skin rashes, and they are complaining that their tap and well water is discolored with a bad odor.  With a little investigation, you discover that some members of the community have recently leased their land to a gas company but cannot discuss the situation because of confidentiality provisions in their leases; others have not leased their land or given the gas company any rights to access or use their property.  How would you design a project to determine whether there are pollutants in the water that are causing health impacts?  Suppose that the successful completion of your project will require the comparison of water pollution levels that existed prior to the arrival of the gas company (i.e., baseline pollution levels) with levels after its arrival.

Third scenario: Imagine that you live in North Dakota and that you are worried that a recently constructed pipeline will leak oil into a lake that is the source of many important resources for the residents in the area, not the least of which is drinking water.  How would you initiate a project that will allow you to detect a leak in the pipeline?

[1] See, e.g., Anne Bowser & Lea Shanley, New Visions in Citizen Science.  Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2013).


Please note that this discussion is not moderated by the Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic.