Lost in Publication: Why we are losing knowledge while gaining publications in organizational research

By Suhaib Riaz.

The scenario is familiar to most organizational scholars who regularly attend academic conferences, seminars, workshops etc. in our field. You walk in to a session with seemingly interesting topics and scholars, and settle in for an inspiring scientific conversation. Except that it doesn’t happen. Something stops everyone from that conversation: Publication. What should have been a conversation about knowledge-seeking quickly turns into a conversation on publication strategies.

The problem is so endemic that it is accepted as common practice; the stark contrast is only made apparent when one compares norms with other disciplines, such as the natural sciences. When I talk to scholars in natural sciences about the importance of discussions on ‘publication strategies’ in their field, I encounter genuine surprise and a polite request to explain what I mean. Apparently, in their sessions, the primary conversation is about how to get better research done. Not how to get it published. The latter remains a distant endnote. Importantly, this distinction in conversations exists despite the fact that the natural sciences are also grappling with various pressures related to productivity.

When I raise this problem at well-meaning conferences of organizational scholars, my anecdotal experiences suggest two reactions. One set of scholars look at me like I am insane. Why would one talk of anything other than publication strategies with the constellation of star scholars and peers assembled – after all, this is the time to learn those trade secrets. The other reaction is less frequent, but does happen: There is a slow nodding…ultimately ending in something like: ‘That’s the system’.

This primacy accorded by our field to conversations about publication strategies is tied to deep problems in our research and publication culture. Other scholars have discussed related issues on pressures for publication productivity, the lack of social relevance in research, and the mindless obsession with journal rankings. We need more examination of how all these issues are intertwined with the type of conversations we now see at academic gatherings. Among other things, this means that the star scholars at such gatherings are often those whose major qualifications are long resumes rather than unique and new insights. In turn, due to this selection bias, the advice from them is likely to be about – what else – how to win at the publishing game. Not how to do innovative research per se. Overall, publication conversations crowd out meaningful conversations about the research itself.

In short, publication is driving research. Research should drive publication. There is a huge difference between the two.

This problem only appears to be increasing. Among the latest trends seems to be a reliance on templates of already-published papers to try and publish new papers. What does this mean for innovative research? Editors and reviewers (I am equally guilty just like most others in these roles) refer authors to such templates, or already have a template of the typical article for their journal in mind when they start evaluating a manuscript. How is one ever going to explain to editors who want each study to begin with the typical “clear theoretical hook” that it would be antithetical and outright dishonest for one to have such a thing when using certain methodologies? In fact, scholars often agree in-person that inductive and abductive approaches are common in our research process – and yet the richness of the knowledge-seeking story must be sacrificed at the altar of publication. We need to start paying attention to the costs of such sacrifices.

What I would like to see is an academic session on organizational research with a simple rule: Anyone who mentions ‘publication’ or ‘publication strategy’ will be immediately shown the door. I wonder what we would all talk about then…!

With this simple rule, I hope the conversation will be forced to attend to scientific aspects…to knowledge-seeking per se, including discussion threads like: What should we study? Why? Why is a particular study useful and for whom? Does a study generate anything new? What can a particular study do to go even further in terms of generating new insights? What other studies should be designed to go further based on the studies under discussion? And so on. Importantly, there would be no words spoken about things like ‘frame it this way and that way – and such and such journal will be a good bet’. To paraphrase Salinger: If anybody said anything phony like that, they would just have to leave.

Does this sound like wishful thinking? Is it too extreme a measure? Or would it at least be a highly symbolic way to call out that the emperor has no clothes – that knowledge-seeking has become a slave to publication-seeking. That approaching all knowledge-seeking through the prism of ‘how to publish’ leads to a twisted logic, which constrains innovation by limiting the nature and type of research we conduct…and in the end, raises a question-mark over the value of many publication-strategy driven studies that crowd the pages of our current journals.

Can we return to research conversations for research’s sake? Who is on board for such a conversation?

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8 thoughts on “Lost in Publication: Why we are losing knowledge while gaining publications in organizational research

  1. Pingback: Transforming Academia: From Silo to Vehicle for Social Change | Organizations and Social Change

  2. Pingback: Transforming Academia: From Silo to Vehicle for Social Change | Organizations and Social Change

  3. An excellent discussion of some of these points in Anne Tsui’s latest and farewell editorial essay, “The Spirit of Science and Socially Responsible Scholarship”, at the Management and Organization Review: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/more.12035/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

    The similarity of concerns is striking…good to see senior academics voicing these concerns…yet change still seems so difficult…

  4. Thanks Suhaib for this provocative post. I really like the idealistic tone and the call for more passion in organization research.Yet, I do see a major issue in your argument which might partly explain publication fetishism. Unlike in the sciences, organization ‘research’ does not produce any ‘knowledge’ in the narrow sense, nor does it ‘innovate’. What organization scholars do is engage in more or less fashionable debates around topics that are jointly constructed. ‘Novelty’ is nothing more than meaningful difference. ‘Discovery’ is about re-framing things in interesting ways. And one major way of measuring the quality of an argument is through journal-based assessment. Also, I would estimate that only 20% of management scholars are really interested in discovery (no matter how you define it). Most scholars are either interested in competing for publications and citations, in persuading others that their worldview is the most valuable one, or in enjoying the conveniences of academic life and hanging out with like-minded people. Or a mixture of the three. No doubt, there might be some organizational anthropologists who are driven by discovery – but it’s a rare species… 🙂

    • Stephan: Great points – certainly some of these may be the underlying factors for what we are witnessing. “Discovery” in the real sense is not part of the current agenda. I wonder if that was always the case though…one can think of Herbert Simon…Jim March…Bill Starbuck, etc. But yes, overall, a rare (dare one say ‘endangered’ or ‘extinct’) species… 🙂

  5. A related follow-up thought: What does the recent proliferation of “publication” workshops and paper-development sessions in our field indicate? Note that these are solely aimed at ‘how to publish’ rather than ‘how to do innovative research’. Is this common practice in other disciplines? Or is it that our field has mostly become about “Publication skills” that may arguably be distinct from “Research skills”? These questions deserve further investigation…

  6. I admire the desire for deep inquiry rather than angst, or for conversations that center around the aims of research rather than the career interests of the researcher. As Chris Argyris has articulated, people are far quicker to leave the rules of the game unquestioned and set about trying to meet them and far slower to question starting assumptions, core aims, governing logic of any situation. We often fail to think deeply about what the game and the rules ought to be. At the same time, form, content, and delivery are linked so discussion about how to best get ideas out in the world seems a useful part of the conversation. Here are three areas where I’d love to see more dialogue about publication, not less, but I believe that doing so would simultaneously address questions about core aims or “what should we be doing.”

    First, what are our theories of change and action? How do we intend for our output to have impact? How should that inform the shape and direction of our endeavors? There are plenty of instances where publication in prestigious peer-reviewed journals is a very wise part of that strategy. Yet, people tend to orient toward the incentive system uncritically rather than mapping a strategy for impact. Second, given the increasing range of ways to get ideas to market, how strategic are we about what combination of steps makes sense to increase the influence of our actions as scholars? If chatter at conferences was about asking these questions broadly, it could shift conversations about how to share our work to more productive terrain. Finally, I suspect the average time from submission to publication in our field is two years or more. What does it say about the knowledge we make if years can go by before it has a chance to reach a wide audience? I hope that more attention to these questions could refocus scholarship and the sharing of scholarly work toward considerations of impact.

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