E. Böker / CC BY 4.0

Ethical Aspects in Research Data Management

Dealing Responsibly with Research Data

Researchers are expected to deal responsibly with the freedom of science that applies in the EU, because misuse of research, unethical use of research results or use of data without consent can - sometimes even unintentionally - result in considerable harm to people, animals and our world. Therefore, there are ethical and legal rules that must be adhered to in research data management (RDM). Generally, the guiding principle in RDM is “as open as possible, as closed as necessary”.

Ethical Principles in the Research Data Life Cycle

Ethical obligations exist not only at the beginning of a project, but affect the entire life cycle of research data. At the planning stage of the research project, it is important to consider whether an ethics review or statement is needed from the ethics committee of one's own research institution (or from other bodies). In principle, this is the case if physical and psychological interventions are carried out on human beings, i.e. if health, human dignity or the personal rights of individuals are affected. The exact requirements are to be obtained at your research institution, from research partner institutions or foreign countries where the research is carried out as soon as possible.

Ethical guidelines must also be adhered to in the course of data collection, processing, storage, archiving and subsequent use of data, in order to protect the subjects of research on the one hand and the researchers on the other. In addition, misuse of the data must be prevented. When sharing and publishing research data, one should ensure that data protection and ethical as well as legal considerations are taken into account. In particular, one should find out what damage or danger could result from potential data misuse. If particularly sensitive data (e.g. health data, information on religion or sexual orientation) is to be archived, third parties may only be granted access to it under high security conditions. Anonymization of personal data may be required before publication. It should be noted that in the case of sensitive data, the vote of the ethics committee is not the only decisive factor. In addition, the stricter rules on the admissibility of processing under data protection law (Art. 9 of the GDPR) must be adhered to, for example with regard to the storage and deletion of research data.

What Ethical Risks may be Present in Research Projects?

You usually have to provide information on ethical aspects in these types of research:

  • Studies or research on and with people (surveys, studies, invasive and non-invasive medical research etc.).
  • Studies, projects, research that collect and archive personal data
  • Research that involves taking samples such as tissue from human subjects. Also, research on human stem cells (even if they are not extracted).
  • Animal experimentation
  • Research relevant to the environment
  • Exchange of knowledge and technology with third countries
  • Safety-relevant research (dual use), where there is potential for misuse of the research results or where there is otherwise a particular risk potential, e.g. accidents.

Furthermore, it should be noted that new fields of research are emerging that have not previously been addressed by common ethical questions. In such cases, it is important that grant applicants carefully consider which ethical aspects must be taken into account and how they will deal with them.

Ethical Considerations and Law

In many cases, law regulates the handling of research data. When this is not the case, ethical considerations should be taken into account under certain circumstances. This is the case, for example, with anonymous surveys. Here, data it is not subject to the strict regulations of data protection law as is the case with personal data. A second example is the handling of data from dead persons - here; in addition, ethical considerations should always be taken into account.

Further Information

The research divisions at research institutions usually provide advice and support on the processes involved in applying for and managing funding. It may be a good idea to contact the ethics committee directly.

In addition, at your institution you may obtain information on ethical issues from the following departments (they may have different names at your institution):

  • Initial enquiries: Research data specialists in the library or the computer centre.
  • General legal questions: Legal department
  • Voting on research with and on humans: Ethics Committee
  • Animal research: Animal Welfare Representative
  • Safety and health checks: Departments for occupational safety, health or environmental protection
  • Ethical regulations in research and data management: Ethics Committee
  • Data storage, archiving: Library and computer centre