Article 5 of the German Consitution says:

(3) Arts and sciences, research and teaching shall be free.

(3) Kunst und Wissenschaft, Forschung und Lehre sind frei.

Even the Federal President Frank Walter Steinmeier said in a speech in 2019:

[...] After all, the academic freedom which we celebrate today does not just begin with the [employment as a professor], but it is certainly needed also by research assistants, doctoral students and postdocs.

[...] Denn die Wissenschaftsfreiheit, zu der wir uns heute miteinander bekennen, die beginnt ja nicht erst mit der W-Besoldung, sondern die brauchen ganz gewiss auch Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter, Doktorandinnen und Postdocs.

Does this mean, that if I am employed at a German university I can rely on this law, when I do scientific research?

For example, can my professor/supervisor tell me which methods I have to use, which books to read and not to read, how many books to read, etc.? (Of course as long as I stay within legal boundaries)

So, in short, does this law reach into the daily work of scientists or is it just meant to set the boundaries of scientific funding?

  • 8
    You can rely on it in the sense that you definitely are not acting illegal doing research that your supervisor does not like. But the law does not require your supervisor to continue funding you through his projects, pay for your research materials, provide advisory, or even positively assess your progress at the various milestones of your PhD journey (including the final defense).
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 28 at 5:38
  • 2
    Also, as a sidenote, the reason why Steinmeier emphasised that non-professors should also have academic freedom is precisely because this is not lived practice today. If your pay grade does not start with a "W", your academic freedom in practice starts and ends with what you can negotiate with your advisor, supervisor, group leader, or comparable.
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 28 at 7:34
  • If you are fluent in German, this is a very good write-up about the origin and implications of freedom of science in the German Basic Law.
    – Narusan
    Commented May 28 at 8:54

3 Answers 3


Neither one.

One key word in the description of your situation is "employed." If you are hired for a certain project, you are required to do that work or face the consequences as far as your employment is concerned.

For practical purposes, you must read all the books your supervisor suggests, but you can also read others. You need to do the work your supervisor assigns as part of your job, by the scientific methods your supervisor assigns, but in your own time you can also do your project by your chosen methods.

I know PhD students who were not employed by the university, and who were free in what to research and how -- with the limitation that they would need a passing grade in the end. But there are very different ways to do scientific work, and they had the choice. A conscientous professor will grade work they had not suggested, and methods they would not have used, as long as the work is scientific. (The people I know were in the humanities, which did not need expensive lab work or field work, and they could cover their own living expenses.)

A tenured professor also has more freedom than you do, but even a professor will be required e.g. to teach undergrad classes and not spend all their time with postdocs (Lehrdeputat). And for all practical purposes, even a professor will need to find Drittmittel (funding for research grants, etc.) and that means researching areas where Drittmittel can be found. During the Berufung, a tenured professor would typically negotiate certain staff positions in support of their work, without having to hustle for grants, but few professors are content with these resources alone.

But there must not be any government agency to dictate the outcome of their research.


No. The word "free" there doesn't refer to price. It refers to (as seen in the rest of art 5.) freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

And it is a guarantee between the state and the university or the state and you as a researcher, not between you and your professor.

It means that the state does not limit or restrict science or scientific publications, except by special laws1. Thus the state cannot tell you that you must not do research on the amount of bribery in the government. This law does not prevent you from getting a bad mark if you don't follow the professor's instructions. Even though there might be university-related regulations that prevent that, appealing to that might be much harder.

That's unfortunately the life of students. Note that it is always difficult to act against a professor, even if he does stuff like plagiarizing works of students as his own.

1 Section 2 of Article 5 allows that the freedom of science, but also the freedom of press can be limited by laws. As an example, animal experiments are restricted.

  • 2
    Uh, nothing in the question indicates to me that OP is not fully aware of what "free" means in this context. They are specifically asking if their advisor can direct them to do specific projects, which is a fair question.
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 28 at 5:30
  • @xLeitix The last sentence says "So, in short, does this law [...] set the boundaries of scientific funding?", which is a question about money.
    – PMF
    Commented May 28 at 5:42
  • 1
    It means that the state does not limit or restrict science or scientific publications in any way. Maybe I am being a bit pedantic but of course science is restricted and heavily regulated anywhere and also in Germany - and this is perfectly legal. That freedom of science is a basic right ensures that it is weighed up against other basic rights. For example, a blank ban on animal experiments (animal welfare being a basic right) would unreasonably infringe on the basic right of freedom of science - but that does not mean that any and all animal experiments (for example) are allowed.
    – Narusan
    Commented May 28 at 8:49
  • @Narusan True, I was just thinking about this. The law also explicitly states (in section 2 of Article 5): These rights shall find their limits in the provisions of general laws, and based on this a law was passed that limits animal experiments.
    – PMF
    Commented May 28 at 8:54
  • The plagiarism incident that you linked happened at a Swiss institution. Why is that case relevant in an answer about a passage from the German constitution?
    – Schmuddi
    Commented May 29 at 9:42

Article 5 is the German version of "freedom of speech". It specifically protects the people from the state (i.e., from the legislature, executive and judiciary). Nothing more and nothing less.

Article 5 makes sure that the state does not create laws or executive policies that go against the freedom of speech. It directly limits the power of the state, and thus indirectly increases the power of individuals and organizations. Amongst others, it forbids introducing general state censorship.

Paragraph 3 specifically protects arts, science and education from the state.

Art 5 is not absolute; if there are conflicts with other articles, a resolution has to be found so the conflicting laws can be made concordant. This is a common principle of the German constitution. Examples very relevant to freedom of science: protection of personal data, animal welfare, etc. - so the state can and does most definitely place limits on what/how science can be done in these circumstances.

Regarding your question: Art 5 only talks about the relationship between the state and individuals/organizations. It says nothing about how individuals or organizations interact with each other. It does not tell us whether an organization can forbid a person from and how to communicate. These things happen all the time; i.e. a non-state organization can easily negotiate an NDA with you to forbid you from talking about specific topics. You can not go and publicly tell untrue allegations against someone (well you can, but they then have recourse against you). You can not publish state secrets. And so on and forth.

But most specifically, Art 5 does not have influence about how you interact with your uni. At the end of the day you will have a contract with them, and whatever is in the contract "counts". If your contract says that you are paid for working on some specific scientific topic, that's what you have to do. If the contract says that someone at the uni is "weisungsbefugt" (i.e., your direct "boss"), then you have to do what they say, within reason and within the purview. If your contract links your continued employment at the uni to certain performance indicators (maybe related to communication - e.g. publishing about certain topics), then so be it. Each uni will, aside from your own contract, have a large stack of rules of conduct, established routines, sub-organziations and so on and forth; all of that is not influenced by Art 5 whatsoever.

Does this mean, that if I am employed at a German university I can rely on this law, when I do scientific research?

Yes, in so far as the state (legislature, judiciary and executive) cannot restrict you in any way, except for established law or with bringing conflicts with other articles into concordance.

For example, can my professor/supervisor tell me which methods I have to use, which books to read and not to read, how many books to read, etc.? (Of course as long as I stay within legal boundaries)

Yes, completely, at least for your time spent "at work". They cannot tell you what to do or not to do in your spare time.

So, in short, does this law reach into the daily work of scientists or is it just meant to set the boundaries of scientific funding?

All of it, and presumably for some sciences (medicine...) all of the time. Its paragraph 3 protects the whole area of art, science and teaching from the state. The state cannot go in and make it illegal to do science on some specific topic (with exceptions: e.g. embryonic research, animal research, research on humans and probably plenty of others). Paragraph 1 makes sure that the state cannot forbid you or your uni from communicating opinions ("Meinungsäußerungsfreiheit" - literally, "freedom to voice opinion") and to a lesser extent facts (with exceptions: e.g. personal facts covered by GDPR, state secrets, confidential information of your employer etc.).

Finally, if you're reading German, the Wikipedia page on Article 5 GG is a nice commentary and explanation, and as usual has links to sources. Feel free to give it a read if you wish.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .