Ethical Considerations

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In this section ethical concepts and procedures that should be applied in psychological research are explained. It starts with a short overview of the basic ethical principles, proceeds with a short definition of the conditions under which ethics approval is required and ends with a description of typical elements within an ethics application.

Basic ethical principals

The first priority of ethically responsible research is the respectful treatment of people who place themselves at the service of science for the purpose of research (DGPs, 2018). The first psychological ethical guidelines were presented by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1952 and are available today in the form of the Ethics Code of Conduct (American Psychological Association, 2017). The Ethics Code of Conduct includes five principles that address ethical conduct at various stages of the research process as well as ten standards representing the specific requirements of different psychological fields of activity (e.g., research; for more details see APA, 2002, 2017 or http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/principles.pdf). The five basic principles of the APA Ethics Code of Conduct are:

  1. beneficence and nonmaleficence
  2. fidelity and responsibility
  3. integrity
  4. justice
  5. respect for people’s right and dignity

The ethical guidelines of the DGPs and the BDP (1998, 2016) are guided by the APA Ethical Code of Conduct (American Psychological Association, 2017). According to the DGPs guidelines (2016; 2018) and based on the considerations of Beauchamp und Childress (2008) the four basic principles of ethical conduct are:

  1. respect for autonomy
  2. nonmaleficience
  3. beneficence
  4. justice

Under which circumstances is the approval of an ethics committee required?

Unfortunately, circumstances under which the approval of an Ethics Committee (EC)/ Institutional Review Board (IRB) has to be obtained are not clearly defined for psychological studies. As initial guide, the ethical guidelines of the German Society for Psychological Science (DGPS, 2018) and the German Research Foundation‘s (DFG) guidance for the social sciences and humanities (available in German only) may be helpful:

On the part of the DGPs as the professional representation of scientifically active psychologists, there is no binding obligation to obtain an ethical approval from the ethics committee. However, since not only third-party funding bodies but also journal editors make funding or publication dependent on the existence of an ethics vote, this is only of little practical relevance. The DFG states that a study requires ethical approval whenever the participants have to endure high emotional or physical strains, cannot be fully informed about the purpose of the study, are patients, undergo fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) during the course of the study. Aims of the ethics vote are (among others) minimizing risks for participants, analyzing cost and benefit of the study and checking if informed consent is obtained appropriately (see the knowledge base’s section on informed consent). If your research involves psychotic drugs or other substances which are designed to treat medical conditions, these substances will likely fall under the Arzneimittelgesetz (AMG, Medicines gulations like the AMG and the Guidelines for Good Clinical Practice apply and you will probably need the approval of a medical EC which means that the approval of a psychological EC is not sufficient. In case you are not sure if you need approval (e.g. your study partially fulfills the criteria mentioned above) contact your institution’s EC and ask if approval is deemed necessary.

Typical elements of an ethics application

The minimum components of an ethics application are three documents, namely, presentation of the study plan, participant information, and a consent form. According to the ethical guidelines of the DGPs (2018) the presentation of the study plan has to include a comprehensible description of the objective of the study and the planned procedure. In particular, those points that affect the ethical principles must be addressed. A template for an “Application for a Statement by the Ethics Committee of the DGPs” can be found in Part III of the DGPs ethical guidelines (cf. p. 119). In the case of study projects for which third-party funding is to be requested, the complete research proposal must be submitted. The DGPs-templates for the participant information and consent forms can be found at the TransMIT-Zentrum für wissenschaftlich-psychologische Dienstleistungen (for more templates regarding consent forms see also the section on Consent forms in the present knowledge base). Depending on the research project, the submission of further documents may also be required, e.g. the declaration of consent for image and/or sound recordings or for certain research methods such as fMRI or EEG, the declaration of consent of the legal representative(s), the consent of the person unable to give consent, the letter of explanation to the participants if the experiment was a deception experiment, etc. All these documents are central for the ethics committees’ assessment on the accurate adoption of the voluntariness principle as well as sufficient Cost- Benefit-Estimation.

Further Resources & Tools

BDP (2016). Berufsethische Richtlinien des Berufsverbandes Deutscher Psychologinnen und Psychologen e. V. und der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Psychologie e. V. Hg. v. Berufsverband Deutscher Psychologinnen und Psychologen e. V. Berlin.

DGPs (2018). Ethisches Handeln in der Psychologischen Forschung. Göttingen: Hogrefe.

TransMIT-Zentrum für wissenschaftlich-psychologische Dienstleistungen (DGPs) – Vorlagen für die Antragstellung: https://zwpd.transmit.de/zwpd-dienstleistungen/zwpd-ethikkommission/vorlagen-antragstellung