Kamran Razmdoost, Dean of ESCP Business School’s London Campus, asks whether it’s time to change our culture around research… here’s what he has to say:
Business and management academics invest a big portion of their time and business schools’ money to do research and publish their findings. They publish thousands of articles every year in “top academic journals”, but this massive effort leads to just little, or better to say rare direct or indirect, impact on businesses, policies and society. Many of these studies are merely for theoretical advancement, and those investigating a practical problem are too specific to enable research rigour. Furthermore, it is extremely challenging for professionals to find a relevant article out of thousands of published studies. Even if they randomly find an article, they won’t be able to evaluate its quality, and the chance is they connect better to the less rigorous articles which are more accessible to them. In many cases, after they read high-quality articles, they come up with the question, “so what?”.
On the other hand, there is little incentive for academics to perform relevant research and make it accessible. Business schools’ research excellence is measured by their number of publications in the top journals (e.g., UT Dallas Research Ranking), and their incentives are mainly on the same basis. In general, academic communities measure academic excellence by combining publication quantity with other metrics such as article citations to evaluate academic reputation and encourage dialogue, yet these metrics are disconnected from the potential practical or policy impact of a piece of research. Even if the scholar wants to investigate a relevant research problem, the disconnection to existing theories, the multi-disciplinary nature of problems, the lack of rigorous data and the long research and review process (many times five or six years) make the research too risky to perform and, if attempted, by the time published become too theoretical or outdated. The academic nature of the problem is depicted in detail in the book titled “Return to Meaning: A Social Science with Something to Say”.
Obviously, the process of scientific discovery and academic rigour is the key element of academic scholarship, but the issue is the institutionalisation of mass publication, the mere focus on rigour and publication as an end to show academic prestige in a field that needs practical and policy relevance (as opposed to pure science). In addition to several problems this has created for academics, it is morally wrong to use the best talents in society only to show a narrowly defined version of academic excellence. Some professors, particularly those who are already tenured, find a way to address the issue and have a more balanced portfolio of activities to generate impact. However, we need to change the culture at the industry level. What if we put the same level of emphasis (if not more) on the meaning and relevance of research?
To address this problem, we need to transform the academic ecosystem with initiatives that enable the transition. Firstly, top academic journals can open new submission tracks for mini-articles that investigate, discuss and debate the practical relevance of existing research. In many cases, academic outputs may not have significant practical relevance, but along with other works, they could have strong practical implications informed by collective research outputs. These submission tracks could benefit from a shortened review process to allow academics to reflect on the most recent and live business issues. The review process should include practitioners and policymakers to ensure both relevance and rigour. Secondly, ranking organisations (government and media agencies) need to abandon their metric of publication quantity and move to the metrics that combine academic rigour and practical or policy relevance, accessibility and impact. The UK Research Excellence Framework Impact Assessment is an initial effort to address this issue, but it needs to be further developed and refined according to each knowledge discipline so as to become a global assessment tool and accessible for ranking organisations. Thirdly, business schools should define incentives and career paths that encourage both academic rigour and relevance. At ESCP Business School, we have created multiple career paths to enable different types of scholarship and set publication expectations to allow enough space for engagement activities. We have also incentivised our academics to disseminate their work through more accessible media such as our Impact Series and The Choice. These efforts need to be further formalised and integrated into the career progression of academics in business schools. Business schools also have the responsibility of training PhD students who are capable of making their research accessible to non-academics. Formal inclusion of practitioners in the initiation phase of research could also help academics to form a more accurate understanding of practical problems. Finally, professional bodies also need to create research-informed initiatives and events. These engagements need to be done in a transparent and inclusive way where academic proposals could be reviewed to be featured in professional bodies’ events and publications. In turn, these efforts could be the basis of academic excellence assessment by ranking organisations and business schools.
These initiatives may not look perfect in the beginning, but if we don’t start, we would never be able to break the strong institutions formed and reinforced around mass publication and publishing as an end rather than the means. It is our duty to encourage research that has meaning for people outside closed academic circles to create value for our society, offer a meaningful and healthy career path to academics and show the right signal of academic excellence to students and the public.
See more articles by Stephanie Mullins.