Ambivalence & International Research Ethics

Defining ambivalence 
Having a strong desire to do something and, at the same time, an equally strong desire not to do the same thing is ambivalence. There is often confusion surrounding the term’s definition. What is not ambivalence is being neither in favour of doing something nor not doing it: that is to say, not having a strong desire on either side. This would be indifference, rather than ambivalence. 

We usually use the concept of ambivalence in reference to having reasons for doing and not doing things, rather than focusing on our psychological attitudes, but the word can designate both, and both will always exist.

The problem of ambivalence 
Ambivalence is present in and can pose challenges to international research. The negative consequences of ambivalence in research can trigger compliance and reputation risks when things go wrong. 

With that said, there is a positive aspect to ambivalence. Research should be - and de facto is - carried out respecting all possible outcomes, especially in research cultures which are more community-oriented than the ones we typically find in Western (wealthy) countries.  

International research entails competition. In this context, international refers to a de facto anarchic state between all nations where dominant big players have considerable influence. It is also a space where dishonest behaviour is likely to be detected, as there is a lack of trust between the majority in distant interactions, and therefore any abuse of trust and lack of integrity is more difficult to find. I call these two aspects the factual and normative scopes of competition. 

International research has a third dimension when it is structured within international networks and institutions and conducted between collaborating communities. Research is then understood as collaborative and regulated through international institutions. However, it is important to emphasise that decisions are always skewed towards the side of each international player and that the role of individual institutions is often just to set up collaborative frameworks and rules.

Analysis of the situation
Mitigating the problems that ambivalence can trigger in international research requires risk assessments. Risk assessments give an appropriate response to the problem by clearly distinguishing at what point institutions or individuals run the risk of being involved not only in strongly ambivalent situations, but also when ambivalence could be an occasion to fall into concrete risks and wrongs/harms.

There are many different types of risks to research. Firstly, risk assessments must be objective to avoid further ethical and reputation risks.

Some high and moderate governance risks can arise from ambivalence in international research. As institutions often have different work cultures and operate differently depending on their size, agenda-setting is not always understood the same way within collaborations.

Strategic risks can arise regarding the engagement of third parties: for example, using third parties when it is not prudent to do so, or, equally, not using third parties when it would be prudent to do so.

Operational risks can also be present, for example, where there may be some concrete hitches and gaps, but where the dishonest intention of a third party is not proven and where there are not yet compliance risks. Compliance risks are added to operational risks when the intention of a third party is proven to be dishonest, for example, in the case of plagiarism. Finally, reputation risks are an expected consequence of plagiarism if compliance risks are not contained.

Ambivalence in international research clearly poses a threat to ethical research practices, and proper and objective risk assessments are required to prevent harm. 

Research ethics, being such an important topic in higher education institutions, is one that we care deeply about at In fact, one of our newest series of Publications is dedicated entirely to the subject. The first book in the Research Ethics Series, entitled Academic Plagiarism: Understanding it to take Responsible Action, was published at the end of 2021. As always, we welcome and encourage submissions to Publications, including on this vital theme. 

Dr Ignace Haaz
Publications Manager, Philosopher 

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