I will be working as a waiter to make extra money, but I am also an ardent academic. I want to know if I can make audio and/or visual recordings of interactions with customers without having them sign some sort of waiver. Thus I won't necessarily have the names of participants.

Can I later publish some papers without actual evidence other then someone listening to the tapes and concluding they are not all me pretending to do different voices? It's in the interest of social psychology - will anybody consider this too invasive without permission? And is it less invasive and acceptable if i just try and conduct research on game theory (e.g., possibly trying to manipulate purchases between two customers as competitive relations)? Will it just be considered anonymous contribution, or am I soliciting information while withholding my actual objectives during interaction?

I have no ethics committee monitoring me.

There are 3 days before I start my job.

  • 21
    Depending on the country/state, recording without permission could be illegal under wiretapping laws.
    – tonysdg
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 18:59
  • 21
    In addition to the academic issues, what is your employer's view of you recording customers? Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 19:26
  • 18
    No ethics committee mean no publication. So then what will you do with this research?
    – GEdgar
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 21:16
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    @Sidney: What is legal is kind of irrelevant here. Law.SE is that way -->. We're concerned here with academic ethics, which says clearly that you have to have the supervision of an ethics committee or IRB. Maybe they will say you need informed consent, maybe they will say you don't. But the key is, the researcher isn't entitled to make that decision all by himself/herself. Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 22:19
  • 5
    You may be allowed to. But you definitely will not be allowed to publish the research if you haven't gotten IRB approval, and after the fact IRB approval isn't generally accepted. So - go talk to IRB.
    – Joel
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 1:02

6 Answers 6


I assume you are in Namibia, based on your profile. It is actually very hard to determine what the relevant laws of Namibia are, so I suggest contacting one of the senior faculty in Human Sciences at UNAM, who are most likely to know what the review procedure is (for instance, what the committee is called -- in the US, "IRB", which stands for "Institutional Review Board", has the authority to review human subjects research -- they will know how "human subjects research" is defined locally). For example, you would want to know whether it is against the law to photograph or record persons in public without their consent. It is possible that there is no law regarding privacy, beyond Article 13 of the Constitution, which would not be relevant here. Even if there is no statutory restriction against citizens conducting unapproved research, it probably could contravene university rules, and you could be expelled for conducting such research, or you could be forbidden from using the research. Plus, the owner of the restaurant could fire you for messing with his customers.

  • "You would want to know whether it is against the law to photograph or record persons in public without their consent." True but probably not relevant. A restaurant is not a public place: it's private property to which the owner allows the public access. I don't know the situation in Namibia either but, in jurisdictions I'm familiar with, the property owner can set conditions for entry, such as "If you come in my restaurant, you consent to be filmed," as long as customers are notified of these conditions. Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 8:02

What does your advisor thinks of that? What does your ethics committee thinks of that?

Because, as far as I know, every and all experiments that remotely involve humans need to be approved by an ethics committee.

I'm from computer science but I had a few experiments involving people and that is usually the rule...

And remember, each country has its own set of laws, make sure you know yours!

Apart from that, my first impression was "bad idea". Even if it is, by some weird loophole, legal, it is not very ethical, at least IMHO...

  • 24
    And if you don't have an ethics committee approving your experiments, then please PLEASE don't conduct them!
    – jakebeal
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 19:19
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    In particular, human or animal studies conducted without the oversight of an appropriate ethics committee or IRB will normally not be accepted for publication in any reputable academic journal. Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 19:23
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    Absolutely discuss this with your advisor and your friendly ethics committee first. Then again, if your "research consists solely of naturalistic observations in public places, and it is not anticipated that the recording will be used in a manner that could cause personal identification or harm", then you may not need informed consent as per section 8.03 of the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 21:14
  • @StephanKolassa HAH! I love how close my wording "strictly observation with anonymous convenience sampling" matches the APA's code "naturalistic observations in public places". Been almost 10 years since those classes and I'm still pretty on the mark :) Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 23:41
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    Usually, yes @Angew... Mostly because sometimes the 'line' between what should need and what shouldn't is hard to place, therefore AFAIK, the line is usually "if involves other people"/invasive to anyone. In most cases, such as yours, the process should be straightforward and quick.. Better safe than sorry Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 11:40

You indicate not only that you plan on recording their likenesses, but also that you intend to do some degree of experimentation.

Sometimes if you are strictly doing observation with anonymous convenience sampling, your IRB will let you get away with it, but the moment you start manipulating variables in any way, that is experimentation, and that requires informed consent.

You need informed consent.

You might be able to get away with doing your social experiment to write it up for your blog, but you almost assuredly would not be able to use this for any degree of academic publication.


Other answers have covered the actual academic aspect of this - what you need to do to produce publishable research. There is also an aspect that is technically off-topic here, but would be on-topic if you asked about the same plan on workplace.se, which I recommend doing.

There are at least two reasons your employer might disapprove of you recording customers in the restaurant:

  1. If/when it comes out that an employee has been recording customers, and using them without consent as research subjects, it will damage the restaurant's reputation, not just the employee's. Depending on local rules, it might also expose the employer to legal liability. That is regardless of whether your activities require consent for academic publication.
  2. Recording customers, and doing research on them, is likely to distract you from doing your job. Your full attention, during working hours, should be on taking orders, serving meals, and any other tasks for which your employer is paying you.

For the United States, at least, there is an excellent set of human-subjects decision flow-charts published by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Some aspects are US-specific, but most of it is a generally good guideline for thinking about the ethical boundaries of "What ethically counts in human subject research?" and "What precautions do I need to be thinking about when conducting research with human subjects?"

Navigating these charts with respect to the scenarios that you have proposed, I find the following:

  • From Chart 1, both are clearly research involving living human subjects, therefore sending us to Chart 2 (possible exemptions).
  • Recording customers without their knowledge: This is observation of public behavior, except the information you capture can identify people and its release could possibly cause harm (e.g., by revealing that a person was in this restaurant when they were supposed to be somewhere else). Therefore, it must be treated with care, and requires external review by an IRB.
  • Intervention with the aim of studying effects on customer purchases: Intervention definitely requires external review by an IRB.
  • A particular release of information that's already public might be implicated in the harm, but calling it causative is a stretch.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 15:04
  • @BenVoigt Not quite sure what you mean. The point of review, however, is to confirm that a researcher's assessment of possible harms and likelihoods is reasonable.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 6:45
  • How is "public behaviour" defined? In law, a restaurant is not a public place: it's private property to which the owner allows the public access. (That is, if "public behaviour" means "behaviour of people in public", this isn't it; if it means "the behaviour of members of the public", then it is.) Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 8:04
  • @DavidRicherby Cars driving down a public street would clearly be public behavior. People's activities inside their own houses is clearly not. In between... that's why we've got review committees, to try to make sure that an individual's judgement on how to draw such lines is at least vaguely in line with the judgement of others.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 8:46
  • @jakebeal I agree that "check with the review committee" is absolutely the right thing to do. But, still, it would be useful to know if "public behaviour" refers to the behaviour of people in public places or to the behaviour of members of the public. Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 9:46

Just wanted to ask why you don't simply observe and take field notes, why record people?

In UK you would also have to deal with data protection and maybe freedom of information legislation.

I think you can still produce a high standard of work without having to use tabloid journalist tactics :-)

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