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Open Access Debate

Research across the disciplines: a road map for quality criteria in empirical ethics research

Marcel Mertz12, Julia Inthorn3, Günter Renz4, Lillian Geza Rothenberger5, Sabine Salloch6, Jan Schildmann6, Sabine Wöhlke3 and Silke Schicktanz3*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute for History of Medicine and Medical Ethics, Research Unit Ethics, University of Cologne, Herderstr. 54, D-50931 Cologne, Germany

2 Institute for Ethics, History and Philosophy of Medicine, Hannover Medical School, Carl-Neuberg-Str. 1, D-30625 Hannover, Germany

3 Department of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine, University Medical Center Göttingen, Humboldtallee 36, D-37073 Göttingen, Germany

4 Protestant Academy Bad Boll, Bad Boll, Akademieweg 11, D-73087 Bad Boll, Germany

5 Formerly at: Institute of Ethics and History in Medicine, Centre for Medicine, Society and Prevention, University of Tübingen, Gartenstr 47, D-72074 Tübingen, Germany

6 Institute for Medical Ethics and History of Medicine, NRW Junior Research Group “Medical Ethics at the End of Life: Norm and Empiricism”, Ruhr University Bochum, Malakowturm, Markstr 258a, D-44799 Bochum, Germany

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BMC Medical Ethics 2014, 15:17  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-15-17

Published: 1 March 2014



Research in the field of Empirical Ethics (EE) uses a broad variety of empirical methodologies, such as surveys, interviews and observation, developed in disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Whereas these empirical disciplines see themselves as purely descriptive, EE also aims at normative reflection. Currently there is literature about the quality of empirical research in ethics, but little or no reflection on specific methodological aspects that must be considered when conducting interdisciplinary empirical ethics. Furthermore, poor methodology in an EE study results in misleading ethical analyses, evaluations or recommendations. This not only deprives the study of scientific and social value, but also risks ethical misjudgement.


While empirical and normative-ethical research projects have quality criteria in their own right, we focus on the specific quality criteria for EE research. We develop a tentative list of quality criteria – a “road map” – tailored to interdisciplinary research in EE, to guide assessments of research quality. These quality criteria fall into the categories of primary research question, theoretical framework and methods, relevance, interdisciplinary research practice and research ethics and scientific ethos.


EE research is an important and innovative development in bioethics. However, a lack of standards has led to concerns about and even rejection of EE by various scholars. Our suggested orientation list of criteria, presented in the form of reflective questions, cannot be considered definitive, but serves as a tool to provoke systematic reflection during the planning and composition of an EE research study. These criteria need to be tested in different EE research settings and further refined.

Empirical ethics; Evidence-based ethics; Empirical methodology; Applied bioethics; Interdisciplinarity; Methodology; Quality criteria