Why is the above proposal necessary? What led to the desire to introduce an initiative for responsible research in business and management? The impetus came from witnessing a broad crisis of credibility in science today. This crisis has two parts. The first is the crisis of integrity. The credibility of the knowledge published in journals is in doubt. The second is the crisis of relevance, a major criticism of business school research for more than two decades. These two are connected: without the assurance of credible research findings, the question of relevance is irrelevant.
- Crisis of Integrity
From funding agencies and legislators to citizens on the street, the integrity of the scientific enterprise is under siege. A widely reported study published in Science (LaCour & Green, 2014) claimed that public opinion on controversial issues could be changed through face-to-face canvassing. Within weeks, the article had to be retracted when other investigators discovered that the data had been fabricated by one of the authors. Other problems arise from the scientific publication process itself. An article titled “Why most published research findings are false” (Ioannidis, 2005) describes how standard practices in research create a bias toward exaggerated findings that are often, essentially, flukes. Because journals favor positive findings over replications or null results, flukes are regularly published and fail to be dislodged. Thus, a more recent study by Open Science Collaboration (2015) aiming to reproduce the findings of 100 articles published in elite psychology journals reported that most of these findings failed to replicate. Inevitably, other researchers claimed that the replications themselves were flawed. In light of these controversies, the public has reason to question how much credibility to give to the published record. These problems are especially pernicious in fields where science guides practice that has life and death implications, such as medicine.1The science in business schools has been criticized for these general trends also. Scholars have documented the prevalence of questionable research practices and found that many conclusions in the published work are not to be trusted. Like medicine, prescribing practices based on bad research can do more harm than good. Thankfully, efforts are underway in the natural and social sciences, as well as in the business disciplines, to promote replicable science and to restore integrity to the process of scientific publication.2
- Crisis of Relevance
Professional schools in universities have a mission of providing education guided by research. Schools of law, medicine, social work, engineering, education, and other professional schools both draw on and contribute to research in the natural and social sciences. Academics in schools of education, for instance, rely on research in cognitive and developmental psychology to develop and evaluate educational practices. As part of the broader university, professional schools serve as a bridge between science and practice.Graduates of schools of education and social work are trained for specific professions. Law and medical schools equip their graduates with the skills to pass rigorous certification exams before going into actual practice. Business schools are distinctive because their constituencies are broad and diffuse. Countless people go into business with no specialized training. “Business” can mean anything from a small retail shop to a multinational corporation. The range of ideas that can be researched and taught in business schools is correspondingly vast. Business school graduates can go on to work in established businesses, start their own enterprise, work in finance, consulting, or other domains, including public service and the non-profit sector. As a result, the question of the “relevance” of business school research is a conundrum.In the early days, fellow academics viewed business school research as too applied in its orientation, and they saw business schools as essentially vocational training centers. This led to the famous Gordon and Howell report in 1959, funded by the Ford Foundation, about the need to improve the scientific rigor of business school research. Business schools began to hire economists, psychologists, and sociologists to improve the scientific rigor of their studies. Subsequently, concerns for rigor often overtook questions of relevance. Business scholars are encouraged to aim their work at the most scientifically rigorous journals, especially those receiving the greatest number of citations, which come primarily from peer-reviewed academic journals. Further, most business and management researchers are not dependent on research grants tied to societal impact. This creates an exaggerated emphasis on citation-based metrics as the gold standard for research quality.3 Books, chapters, and reports, which are not as amenable to these metrics, are often devalued relative to articles in A-ranked scientific journals. Emphasis on citation-based metrics and top journal publications reinforce the sole focus on the academic audience and feed the tendency of scientistic writing style and selection of esoteric topics. Such journal articles are often inaccessible to practitioners, and people in business often find business school research to be too obscure to be put into practice. As we have argued, business school research has the potential to serve as a credible source that can inform solutions to the pressing business or social issues of our time and offer best practices that generate prosperity. 4 It can occupy “Pasteur’s quadrant”: basic research inspired by use.
- Diagnosing the Problem
If business school research has such great potential, then why is its promise not fulfilled? For a more systematic diagnosis, we carefully read the published works discussing business school’s research problem, and conducted a Delphi survey5 of scholars, deans, members of accreditation bodies, and a sample of authors who have written about this problem. Thirty-two participants responded to four open-ended questions and 27 of these 32 completed the second round of a structured survey consisting of statements synthesized from the responses to the open-ended questions in the first round. The results identified gaps between where we are and where we should be across several domains.
- What are the major issues in our current research?
The three most pressing problems identified are: (1) Current research does not produce knowledge relevant for business purposes. (2) A strong orientation toward A-ranked journals distorts incentives towards a narrow focus and excludes many important research studies that are published in lesser-ranked journals. (3) An over-emphasis on theory (which ironically discourages the development of new theories) leads to a focus on form more than substance; a bias against negative findings; and less value placed on inter-disciplinary, problem-solving research and non-mainstream topics. Contents of textbooks lag behind the current challenges of businesses, society, and stakeholders.This diagnosis confirms our current knowledge, but it certainly does not fit all disciplines and all scholars in the business school. For example, some finance research has revolutionized financial practices (albeit not always with a positive impact on society), contributions in operations management have helped vastly improve business efficiency and effectiveness, and there are faculty members in all disciplines working on problems with immediate policy aspirations. However, too many researchers in business schools write the next “me too” papers, while similarly rigorous research on important practical topics in applied outlets does not get the same valuation as papers in top ranked journals. A failing across all the business disciplines is that we have not explicitly recognized and agreed that the goal of doing research is to make business and society better, rather than simply publishing in outlets that “count”.
- Who benefits from our research?
Currently, research primarily benefits the researchers who conduct it (for career advancement) and those who read it, which consists primarily of other scholars. Articles are recognized as being interesting or novel rather than providing actionable insights. There is a low priority given to how research could benefit business and the broader society, including employees, customers, and communities.
- What kinds of topics are we studying?
The choice of topics is often driven by the prior literature and its gaps, regardless of the importance of the topic to the world at large in the contemporary context. Topics are also shaped by the availability of data suitable for analysis and publication. This often limits research to organizations that are required to disclose information on a regular basis, in particular, exchange-listed corporations, at the expense of other forms of enterprises (e.g., family firms, non-profits). Yet the availability of data may not correspond to the importance of the question. Experimental research often favors topics that can be studied in a lab using undergraduate students or on Amazon MTurk. Finally, business school research often takes the form of “bite-sized chunks” that can be conducted in a few months and conveyed in a short article. Books are often not valued. Large-scale projects are seldom pursued.
- What topics SHOULD business school research focus on?
The Delphi respondents expressed significant consensus on a delimited set of big topics framed as “grand challenges”. The five topics receiving the greatest assent included:
- Understanding the broader impact of firms on and their roles in society, beyond the creation of shareholder value.
- Understanding the changing nature of work and the workforce, as well as the changing nature of consumers and their role in co-creating value.
- Examining the social sustainability of business organizations, including their impact on the health and well-being of employees, customers, and community.
- Enhancing environmental sustainability, managing the use of natural resources, and reducing negative environmental impact.
- Alleviating poverty, creating greater prosperity, and reducing economic inequality, both locally and globally.
The above topics may reflect the disciplinary background of the respondents, but they align well with the United Nation’s “Sustainable Development Goals”, and the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks reports (2014 to 2017) which identify income disparity, unemployment and underemployment, asset bubbles, and failure of financial institutions as the major economic risks. 6 The Special Research Forum on Grand Challenges in Management serves as an exemplar for business school research tackling societally relevant problems. 7
- What are the major issues in our current research?
- The Underlying Research Ecosystem and its Equilibrium
Why is there such a gap between what business school research could do and what it actually does? The insights gained from the Delphi study help us identify points of leverage and provide a map of the academic career system and the incentives it provides to research. The relevant actors, their priorities and inter-relationships among the actors constitute the research ecosystem. The actors include researchers; journals, editors and their editorial boards; faculty evaluation committees, senior faculty; deans, provosts, and presidents; funding agencies like NSF, NIH, or private foundations; school or university ranking publishers such as Business Week and Financial Times; and business school associations such as EFMD, AACSB, CEEMAN, and AMBA. Practitioners and policymakers are also part of the ecosystem. They are the “consumers” of our products (knowledge from research) and services (teaching and consulting).
Within this system, the journal article is the essential unit of currency. Faculty members are evaluated based on their publications in a small set of elite journals – defined by “impact factor” (despite doubt on its value as an accurate measure of quality) – or its appearance on agreed-upon lists of top journals (e.g., the Financial Times 50, which also has concerns about the political nature of journal selection). Schools themselves are evaluated in part on their faculty’s record of publications in these journals. Prospective faculty members, in turn, weigh job opportunities by the schools’ reputations, based in part on their publication records. Thus, those who want to be rewarded orient their work toward the perceived standards of elite journal editors and reviewers. These standards, in turn, reflect the values of editorial board members, who tend to be accomplished scholars who have been successful in the current system based on their publications in the list of elite journals. Taken together, we have achieved an equilibrium where one set of actions supports another set of actions in a reciprocal and mutually reinforcing way. However, this equilibrium reflects the local isolation of academics and a clear disconnect from the society embedding the research ecosystem. The localized equilibrium has led to questions on both scientific credibility and the societal value of the research.
It is clear that systemic change in this equilibrium is difficult, as any change will require coordinated actions by key actors in all the relevant decision posts: deans and evaluation committees; journal editors and boards; funding agencies; and accreditation bodies. None of them can do it alone. Suppose that a visionary dean decided to encourage a different, more “responsible” kind of work that was not currently rewarded by elite journals. Faculty might then aim their publications at specialized or local journals, which are usually not on the “list”. This would harm the school’s reputation, making it difficult to hire top scholars and perhaps harming the school’s accreditation and funding. Alternatively, suppose that a visionary editor of an elite journal sought to break away from the pack and publish research on important social problems without a strong theory or advanced methods. S/he is likely to find that both the associate editors and the editorial board are not enthusiastic about abandoning the standards in which they have been trained (such as contribution to theory, sophisticated statistics, novelty). Even if an editor were successful in replacing the entire team with more malleable scholars, the result is almost certain to be a decline in impact and reputation of the journal and its removal from the elite list. Or, imagine that an accrediting body sought to radically change its standards, without the participation of faculty, deans, and journal editors. Much the same problem arises, and it is easy to imagine that a new accreditor would quickly arise to take its place. Systemic change requires coordinated action. Without it, independent stakeholder attempts will likely fail.