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Obtaining ethical approval

Requirements for and information on reviewing research projects

Requirements for and information on reviewing research projects

Academic journals, research sponsors, research institutions, and ethics guidelines often require that ethical approval of an ethics committee can be presented. Who can researchers turn to, when does research require ethical approval, and what are the requirements of ethics committees?

Who can I turn to?

Ethics committees of different disciplines and research institutions

If you have concrete questions on reviewing your research project, you can contact the local, discipline-specific, or cross-disciplinary ethics committee of your research institution. In addition, it is possible to contact the ethics committees of various academic associations. Find suitable ethics committees among the addresses listed below.

  • Overview of local and cross-disciplinary ethics committees in the social and economic sciences on the RatSWD website:
    Rat für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsdaten. (2021). Übersicht sozial- und wirtschaftswissenschaftlicher Ethikkommissionen. Link
  • Overview of ethics committees in communication and media studies: FeKoM project (Research ethics in communication and media studies):
    Filmuniversität Babelsberg, Technische Universität Dortmund & Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover. (2022). Ethikkommissionen der Kommunikations-und Medienwissenschaft. Link
  • Overview of local ethics committees responsible for psychology:
    Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychologie. (o.J.). Lokale Ethikkommissionen. Link
  • Overview of medical ethics committees: Arbeitskreis Medizinischer Ethikkommissionen. (n.d.). Ethik-Kommissionen. Link
  • Overview of contact persons and committees in Germany that are responsible for ethics in security-relevant research:
    Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft & Leopoldina – Nationale Akademie der Wissenschaften. (n.d.). Ansprechpartner und Kommissionen in Deutschland, die für Ethik sicherheitsrelevanter Forschung zuständig sind. Link
  • Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft & Leopoldina – Nationale Akademie der Wissenschaften. (n.d.). Gemeinsamer Ausschuss zum Umgang mit sicherheitsrelevanter Forschung. Link

Assessing whether ethics approval is required

When must ethics approval be obtained?

Cross-disciplinary, discipline-specific, or local ethics committees and academic associations typically determine their own criteria on whether ethics approval is necessary. Additionally, funders or academic publishers also require submitting ethical approval. The RatSWD has developed self-assessment criteria: Researchers can use these to assess whether they must or should obtain ethical approval for their research project. If your research institution has developed own criteria for self-assessment, it is advised to observe these.

Research ethics self-assessment

RatSWD recommendation (excerpt) “Not all research projects require an ethics review by a committee. In many cases, projects can be classified as unproblematic from a research ethics point of view following thorough (self-)assessment. Communicating with third parties (e.g., peers, supervisors, experts, etc.) can promote this process of reflection in a meaningful and non-bureaucratic way.

When collecting survey data, for example, which do not feature questions that can be expected to have negative effects on the participants (which could be surmised even for standard questions on sex, age, education, employment, and on psychological constructs like the Big Five personality traits, which are now often collected), self-assessment regarding questions of research ethics is likely sufficient in most cases. Regardless of ethical issues in the narrower sense, however, it is recommended to involve the responsible data protection officer. Irrespective of this, researchers are of course obliged to comply with data protection laws. This also applies to widespread methods and research questions used in qualitative and interpretative social research, including semi-structured and expert interviews, open participatory observations, or interpretative document analysis. Secondary analysis of data made available through research data centres typically require a very low level of reflexivity. As a rule, using these data is unproblematic because a review of ethical acceptability has already been performed by the primary researchers or data producers during the data collection process, or an assessment was deemed unnecessary. The research data centre making these data available must make sure that sharing these data is in line with the requirements of data protection and research ethics. Assessment with regard to data protection is routine procedure. […] The following questions can help researchers, their research teams, or, if applicable, scientific advisory boards or project advisory boards to gain orientation for reflection and assessment of key ethical questions:

  • To what extent are guidelines of research ethics relevant to the study at hand?
  • Which existing ethics codex (or guideline) is relevant to my research?
  • What risks or possible harm for participants (in psychological, physical, social, legal, or economic terms) could arise from the study (during data collection, or through analysis, publication, utilisation, or archiving of results)?
  • In what way could the study harm or benefit the group the participants belong to?
  • Which measures were taken to avoid potential harm?
  • Does the study feature certain risks for researchers that go beyond what is usual in everyday life? If yes, which measures were taken to avoid or reduce them?
  • Are the foreseeable risks, associated with the study, in a balanced relationship with the benefits (gain in knowledge, possibly also benefits of application) that can be expected from the study?
  • Which precautionary measures were taken in order to be able to identify and appropriately address unforeseen research ethical challenges that arise in the course of the study?

These questions should be complemented by additional questions arising from the project’s specific context. When addressing these questions, it is not only advisable to consult the relevant academic literature but also to exchange views with peers and third parties (e.g., persons with relevant professional expertise or life-world experiences that can help assess risks appropriately). If it becomes apparent during this self-assessment that potential damage is to be expected, exceeding the amount of what is usual in the everyday life of participants as well as researchers in this field, or if there are any other justified doubts about the ethical acceptability of a planned research project, an exchange of views with colleagues (if available, in an institution, possibly also with a scientific advisory board) should be sought and this process should be documented.* (or FN)

If then there is still reasonable doubt, it is recommended to seek ethical approval from an ethics committee. Documentation of this self-reflection (together with colleagues, too) is important both as an attachment to third-party funding applications and to help colleagues for future research projects.”

The text is taken from: German Data Forum (RatSWD) [Rat für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsdaten] (2017).  Forschungsethische Grundsätze und Prüfverfahren in den Sozial- und Wirtschaftswissenschaften (Output Series, 5. Forschungsethische Grundsätze und Prüfverfahren in den Sozial- und Wirtschaftswissenschaften (Output Series, 5. Berlin. doi: 10.17620/02671.1, p. 25. ff. Link

Cross-disciplinary guidelines on whether ethics approval is required

  • RatSWD [Rat für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsdaten] (2017): Forschungsethische Grundsätze und Prüfverfahren in den Sozial- und Wirtschaftswissenschaften. RatSWD Output 9(5), p. 25 et sqq. 4.2.1 doi: 10.17620/02671.1. Link.
  • Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. (2021). FAQ: Informationen aus den Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften. Wann brauche ich ein Ethikvotum?. Link.

Discipline-specific and institution-specific guidelines on whether ethics approval is required

  • Arbeitskreis Medizinischer Ethikkommissionen. (n.d.). Einreichung von Forschungsvorhaben: In welchen Fällen bedarf es eines Votums einer medizinischen Ethikkommission? Link
  • Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. (n.d.). FAQ: Informationen aus den Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften: Wann brauche ich ein Ethikvotum. Link
  • Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie. (2021). Forschungsethik – Reflexionsfragebogen. Link
  • Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie. (2021). Risikobewertungsbogen. Link
  • Verband der Hochschullehrer für Betriebswirtschaft. (n.d.). Interessenkonflikte. Link

Templates for ethics review applications

General information

The ethics committees of academic associations and universities typically make their own templates available for applying for ethical approval. Please visit the website of your respective institution.

Discipline- or institution-specific templates/samples

  • TransMIT-Zentrum für wissenschaftlich-psychologische Dienstleistungen. DGPs [Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychologie] (n.d.). Vorlagen für die Antragstellung. Link
  • Universität Bremen. (2021). Antragstemplate der Ethikkommission der Universität Bremen. Link