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Can we put zest and purpose back into academic life?

More and more papers in management studies are badly written, use dubious methods (such as p-hacking) to achieve spuriously positive results, and avoid the really big issues facing our discipline and our world. Why is this?

Dennis Tourish_Management Studies in CrisisMy new book offers some explanations and identifies some tentative solutions. Above all, the ‘publish or perish’ mantra is out of date. Rather, the new reality is one of ‘publish frequently (in high impact journals) or perish.’ Intrusive audit regimes, such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the U.K., check our compliance, reward those who conform and penalise those who resist. This is a classic incentive for misconduct and even fraud.

Yet most of us became academics because we are interested in ideas, love writing, and want to make a positive impact on the world. The audit regimes under which we labour care nothing for any of this. Increasingly, neither do we. The need to survive means that we create bite-sized studies that can yield quick publications rather than ask big questions with uncertain answers. As one example, few papers have been published in top management journals that discuss the financial crisis of 2008. Maybe it just wasn’t important enough to discuss. Instead, we have a profusion of trivial studies and weak theorising, many obviously produced with the sole aim of advancing the careers of their authors. It is no wonder that most managers don’t read our journals, and can’t understand them when they do.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with aiming to publish in top journals. But there is something wrong with subordinating everything to this quest, including the need to do responsible research and discuss issues that matter. Yet scoring ‘hits’ in top journals has become such a compelling goal for some academics that if offered the chance to do so on condition that they murder their entire families, I fear that they would respond: ‘What’s the catch?’

However, all is not lost. The RRBM network shows that there is growing concern about the quality of our research, and in improving research integrity. We need to challenge such deceptive practices as p-hacking, HARKing, and the priority that is now placed on achieving ‘positive’ results. We need to stop describing publishing as a ‘game.’ It is surely more important than that, and to suggest otherwise is to legitimise mind-sets that put ‘winning’ above integrity. I also believe that we need to re-think the insistence by top journals that each paper must ‘develop theory.’ Theory is important, but so is responsible research, developing insights for practice, and writing about important phenomenon in compelling ways. To pretend otherwise produces a great deal of badly written hype that often appeals only to a micro-tribe of fellow devotees.

Nor are these jobs only for professional associations and journals. Despite institutional constraints, each one of us can re-commit to responsible research practices, and to doing work that matters. We might even find that it makes academic life more fun.

 

Dennis Tourish is Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies at the University of Sussex (d.j.tourish@sussex.ac.uk; http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/410361). He is the author of Management Studies in Crisis: Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research, published by Cambridge University Press.