Observations can be as public as observing adults strolling through a park and as private as watching a family in their home. Privacy is an important element to consider when reviewing observations; a public space is any area that is not considered a private residence or private workspace and where the participant does not have an expectation of privacy. Participants can be in a public space but still expect to have their actions be private; for example, using a public bathroom for most cultures in considered a private act even though the space is in a public domain. When constructing the plan for your observation and describing it to the Board in your protocol, you will need to provide the following information:

  • Where will the observation take place? Will you observe participants in a public space or in a private space? Is there an expectation of privacy even though the participant is in a public space?
  • How long will you observe participants?
  • What information will you collect about participants?
  • How will you document the data you will gather? Video, audio, notes?
  • Will you gather information about a participant that could be embarrassing, risky, or document illegal behaviors?

Some observations don’t happen in person but occur in digital spaces. The same rules apply in regards to expectations of privacy; you will need to consider whether the users in the online space expect their content to be shared within a closed set of users or if their comments are available to the wide web. In addition you will need to understand the platform’s user agreement. While you may be able to access users by creating a personal user account, it may not give you access to other users for the purpose of conducting research. You will need to contact the platform manager and obtain permission to conduct research using their platform. The proof of permission should be included in the Permissions section in the iProtocol form.


Observations, Consent, and Exemption

Exempt studies are not under the same obligation to obtain consent from participants (though the Board often asks researchers to provide information about the study to participants using a Study Notification). The observation of public behavior (including audio and visual recordings) can be exempted if one of the following are true:

  1. the information is recorded by the investigator in such a manner that the identity of the participant cannot be readily ascertained directly or through identifiers linked to the subject, the investigator does not contact the subjects, and the investigator will not re-identify the subjects.
  2. any disclosure of the participant’s responses outside the research would not reasonably place the participant at risk of criminal or civil liability or be damaging to the subjects' financial standing, employability, educational advancement, or reputation.
  3. if the participant is identifiable, there are adequate measures to protect privacy and confidentiality.

In addition, observations of prisoners cannot be exempted. If the observation of public behavior involves a minor, the investigator cannot participate in the observed activity and the minor’s identity cannot be recorded.

If the protocol qualifies for exemption, the Board does not require researchers to obtain consent from participants. If the protocol does not qualify for exemption, it doesn’t mean that the study can’t proceed. If consent is an obstacle for conducting the study, the Board may consider waiving consent but otherwise for observations that don’t meet the exemption qualifications, the Board will require that the researcher obtain consent from participants.

Describing an Observation in iProtocol
  • Describe the observation by creating a Data Source in the Data Source section.
  • Upload an observation protocol in the Data Source Upload (if you want to use additional documentation—this can also be described in the Data Source).
  • If you need permission to conduct an observation, upload any files that document permission in the Permissions section.
  • If you have more than one Data Source and the sources are linked, the Associate Data Sources with Data Sources is the section where you can demonstrate and describe this relationship.
  • The Associate Data Sources with Participant Groups is the section where you can demonstrate the relationship between Participant Groups and Data Sources (if you have more than one of both).