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Ethical Issues

Although the research methods applied in this study may appear to be relatively uncontroversial, ethical considerations must still play a part in the design and application of the chosen research methods. As the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) explains, research is defined broadly and research ethics refer to the moral principles guiding all research, “during the complete lifecycle of a project” (ESRC 2016). Therefore, any relevant ethical considerations must be identified and taken into account in the context of this specific research. Ethical considerations have a long history in social research, and there are various codes of ethics which guide researchers. However, most codes have similar overlapping principles such as informed consent, avoiding deception, ensuring privacy and confidentiality and the accuracy of the data (Christians 2005, pp. 144-5). Consequently, the ESRC ethical code currently in operation will be applied. From January 2015, the ESRC (2015) put in place an updated Research Ethics Framework (REF). This framework sets out what the ESRC and various other funding bodies perceive to be good practice for all social science research. The framework lays down six broad principles which the ESRC expects to be addressed in all social science research. These are: firstly that research participants must participate in a voluntary way, free from any coercion or undue influence; next, that researchers should aim to maximise the benefits of the research and minimise potential harm to participants; thirdly, research participants should be given appropriate information about the purpose, methods and intended uses of the research, what their participation entails and what risks and benefits, if any, are involved; fourthly, participant preferences regarding anonymity and confidentiality should be respected. Research should also be designed, reviewed and undertaken to ensure integrity, quality and transparency; and finally, the independence of research must be clear, and any conflicts of interest or partiality should be explicit (ESRC 2015, p. 4).

These key principles of research ethics must be considered in turn in the context of my research on intellectual property protection in China. The principle of informed consent is highly relevant to this research. “Informed consent entails giving sufficient information about the research and ensuring that there is no explicit or implicit coercion so that prospective participants can make an informed and free decision on their possible involvement” (ESRC 2015, p. 29). This information was provided to all respondents in this study prior to their initial involvement. My position, initially as a postgraduate researcher and later as a foreign scholar, and the aims of this research were explained in both the cover letter and at the top of the questionnaire or start of the interview, and it was made clear to all respondents that they could raise any questions or concerns that they had about their participation in this study. The issue of informed consent is more problematic in this research project as the majority of the respondents were Chinese. It is well recognised that the conventional Western concept of informed consent relies on the “primacy of the individual,” which may not exist in other cultural contexts, where the individual may take less precedence to the family or community (Westmarland 2011, p. 143). In the context of China, it is true that individual rights may not take precedence over collective concerns. However, many of the Chinese respondents worked for foreign-invested enterprises or for multinational corporations operating in China, and they have consequently been exposed to concepts of individual rights such as consent and privacy on previous occasions. Therefore, the same wording was used to deal with the issue of informed consent in both the Chinese and English versions of the questionnaire and was handled in broadly the same way at the start of each interview.

The third principle regarding confidentiality and anonymity is a crucial consideration in this study. This ethical principle requires that “individual research participant and group preferences regarding anonymity should be respected and participant requirements concerning the confidential nature of information and personal data should be respected” (ESRC 2015, p. 4). Anonymity was a key concern to many respondents as the issue of IP protection is extremely commercially sensitive. Therefore, assurances of anonymity were given in the initial contact letter/email and reinforced in the questionnaire/interview. Contact details provided by respondents were contained in a separate sheet, which was detached from the survey immediately on receipt of the completed questionnaire. Furthermore, each respondent was assigned a code relating to which group of respondents they belonged to, and this code was used in all documents relating to their individual responses and comments. In this study, this balance between retaining sufficient detail and ensuring that individuals could not be identified was achieved by only providing basic details of the respondent and the type of company they worked for. The location was also occasionally included when this was felt to be significant and where this did not increase the probability of the respondent’s identification.

The next principle concerns the need to ensure that participants take part voluntarily and without coercion. This is closely linked to the issue of informed consent. No pressure was exerted on participants who expressed their concern about participating and all respondents were assured that they could choose to withdraw at any time. Indeed, several respondents declined to answer certain questions as they were deemed to be too sensitive regarding the company’s IP strategy and this response was not challenged. The principle of avoiding harm to participants was also considered. Harm does not just include physical or psychological harm; it can also include reputational risk as well as risk to a participant’s social standing, privacy, personal values or beliefs, their links to family and the wider community, and their position within institutional settings (ESRC 2015, p. 27). Therefore, a further consideration in this study was the possibility of harm to an individual’s or company’s reputation as a result of comments made. This possibility was minimised by giving clear assurances of anonymity and ensuring that respondents could not be identified in the results, but the possibility of later identification may have inhibited some respondents from giving their true opinions, particularly where these were critical of the current system or where they were relating to situations in which their company’s IP was at risk. The final principle is that the researcher should declare any affiliations and potential conflicts of interest. Although this was not directly relevant to my research, respondents were still informed of my initial status as postgraduate researcher and later as an academic and my affiliation with the University of Nottingham. I also explained clearly that the data collected was for research use only.

The handling of personal data followed the standards laid down in the Data Protection Act 1998, despite the fact that data was collected outside the United Kingdom (UK) and thus outside the remit of this legislation. This legislation provides that data must be obtained for a specific purpose and should not be kept for any longer than is necessary for this purpose. Data should also be kept secure from unauthorised access (Information Commissioner’s Office 2016). As a result, data collected from respondents was obtained for the specific aims of the research and will be destroyed on completion of the study. Data will also be stored in secure computer files and the use of codes to identify respondents should further protect their personal information.

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