Can B-Schools Rethink Research?

Six forces are pushing academia beyond traditional “publish or perish” measures of research impact. As these forces converge, will business schools rise to the challenge?
Can B-Schools Rethink Research?

MARK KENNEDY OF IMPERIAL College Business School in London recently decided to do something he has never done before: publish a paper in a lesser-known computer science journal at its direct invitation. Just a few years ago, Kennedy and his co-authors might not have considered such an option. After all, the journal’s editors had approached them before they even had submitted a paper, a possible red flag that the journal might not be selective enough to pass muster with their universities.

But given their field, they also knew their paper had a limited shelf life. So, once they did their due diligence and learned that the journal had a proper peer review process, they made a strategic decision: Publish the paper now, while its results were still fresh. In short, they prioritized impact over mere publication.

“Our field is a fast-moving frontier,” says Kennedy, an associate professor and director of Imperial Analytics, a research center at the school. “If we submitted the paper the ‘right’ way, it could take two years to be published.” By taking this opportunity, they could have greater impact on their field and receive feedback to fuel future work. Kennedy says that he might make the same decision in the future, if it means he can maximize the reach and relevance of his scholarship.

Kennedy’s shift in mindset reflects a larger sea change now taking place throughout academia. For decades, researchers were satisfied if their papers were published in high-quality journals and their colleagues deemed their methodologies solid. But as the world’s problems grow more intractable, businesses and government agencies are pressuring academics to produce research with greater relevance to society, says Wilfred Mijnhardt, policy director at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands. He would like to see more business researchers follow Kennedy’s lead, although he admits that it might take time for promotion and tenure committees to value impact over journal reputation.

“It can take at least ten years for a business school to develop a proper research culture—to move from being teaching-driven to being research-driven,” Mijnhardt says. “It will take longer, and be more challenging, for schools to move from being research-driven to being truly impact-driven. But schools can start by asking, ‘What kind of organization do we want to be? What kind of impact do we want to have in the world?’ Developing an impact portfolio is a tough and strategic process. It’s not something done overnight.”

Even so, more academics agree that it must be done, as higher education institutions hear calls from all sides to rethink the purpose of their research. Below, we explore six forces compelling business scholars to shift their priorities away from publishing in esoteric journals and toward generating more responsible, relevant, and widely read scholarship.

1. THE PUBLISHING ARMS RACE

The fact that Kennedy and his team were willing to consider a journal operating outside of the academic mainstream speaks to the difficulties of getting published at all. First, in the grand scheme, there are only a handful of top-tier journals, and they have the capacity to publish only a small portion of all submissions, says Jane Lu, professor of management and director of the Research Centre for Emerging Markets at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. As the editor of the Asia Pacific Journal of Management, she has seen a significant increase in the number of submissions APJM receives every year. As a result, the journal’s acceptance rate has declined—it now rejects two-thirds of submissions outright.

The Academy of Management Journal, which ranks No. 1 in the Financial Times’ top-50 journals, accepts only 8 percent of total submissions. With the publication capacity of well-known journals so low, academics could turn to newer outlets for a better chance at acceptance, but even then, they want to know these outlets follow responsible practices. “New journals are entering the pool,” says Lu, “but it takes time for them to establish themselves as reputable publications.”

Second, the high volume of contributions means that it can take years before research makes it through the system. “There’s nothing wrong with our journal process that a stick of dynamite wouldn’t fix,” Kennedy jokes. “It takes so long to get through the process, and there’s so much co-writing with people who are only trying to make sure you cite them. It’s an institution that is set up in a way that is clearly not the best for what we’re trying to do.”

Finally, more schools around the world are seeking international recognition by pushing their faculty to publish in respected journals. This means that even schools that once prioritized teaching and community outreach are working to produce research that is internationally competitive.

That’s the case at Escola de Administração de Empresas de São Paulo at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV-EAESP) in Brazil, where research only had a minor role during the 1990s, explains Thomaz Wood Jr., a professor at the school. Over the next two decades, he says, “research became a priority, and scientific journals, events, master’s programs, and PhD programs grew steadily.”

But FGV-EAESP also represents the market’s new direction. While it still focuses on publication, its faculty increasingly care about the broader impact of their work. Over the past ten years, Wood says, “our priority changed from quantity of publications to quality of research.”

Today, FGV-EAESP has created two pathways for its researchers. Some scholars work on research in one of the school’s 16 applied research centers, on topics ranging from sustainability to public management. Others work on more traditional research in areas such as finance, marketing, management, and organizational studies. Faculty pursuing both applied and traditional research often collaborate to conduct research with greater relevance, with a goal of becoming more visible and competitive internationally. “Our ultimate goal,” says Wood, “is impact.”

2. THE PURSUIT OF DATA

This competition for publication brings with it equally fierce competition for emergent sources of data. With the latest data, researchers hope to delve into less-examined areas of business—and generate findings that set out in new directions.

Wharton Research Data Services in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is a platform that allows researchers to access datasets from multiple sources at once. The service is seeing faculty pay far more attention to datasets in niche fields from smaller data providers, says Mireia Giné, director of international initiatives for WRDS. In fact, datasets in niche areas are becoming so valuable, it’s inspiring a wave of acquisitions—as just one example, The Street, a large provider of banking data, recently purchased the company that owns Rate Watch, which tracks bank loan and deposit rates, to capitalize on increased interest in these smaller players.

“Common questions we field from faculty are, ‘Can I get new data that no one else has looked at yet?’ and ‘How can I see old data through a new lens?’” says Giné. “We inform them about the smaller providers on our platform, which are becoming extremely valuable because they’ve had less exposure.”

WRDS wants to encourage more schools and academics to pursue new directions in their research. With that goal in mind, in April 2017, WRDS partnered with the online paper repository Social Science Research Network, based in Rochester, New York, and global academic publisher Elsevier to bring more visibility to emerging business schools whose innovative research might otherwise not be noticed by the international community. First, the organizations created the WRDS Research Paper Series on SSRN, which includes all papers on SSRN that cite WRDS data, as a way to help schools disseminate their faculty’s best work. Next, the partners launched the WRDS-SSRN Innovation Awards, which each year put the spotlight on emerging research institutions in North America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

“There are schools out there doing the right things and investing in research,” says Bob Zarazowski, managing director of WRDS. “We wanted to recognize schools that are becoming more efficient and creating more research output than they have in the past, and we wanted to design these awards so that the Harvards, Stanfords, and Whartons aren’t the ones winning every year.”

“ OUR ULTIMATE GOAL IS IMPACT.” —THOMAZ WOOD JR., FGV-EAESP

3. PRESSURE FROM POLICYMAKERS

Calls are growing louder for schools to produce research that solves social problems or benefits society—especially calls from governments. For example, in 2014, four agencies that distribute approximately £2 billion (US$2.6 billion) annually in research funding in the U.K. produced the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a comprehensive assessment of the research impact of U.K.-based universities. Conducted once every six years, the REF assessment aims to determine whether U.K. universities are producing research that matters to society. In response to REF 2014, for instance, U.K. universities were compelled to look less at how many papers their faculty had published and more at how their faculty’s research had been applied. The next cycle, REF 2021, is currently underway.

Additionally, nonprofit organizations worldwide—from accrediting bodies to higher education consortia to professional associations—have released reports that provide schools with guidelines for identifying and embracing purpose in their research agendas.

One such report comes from the Russell Group, a consortium of 24 research-intensive universities in the United Kingdom that are committed to maximizing the effects of their teaching and research. Its member institutions have identified nine types of impact that their research can achieve: economic, policy, social, health, cultural, environmental, technological, legal, and global.

The Russell Group put these categories in real terms in its 2015 “Engines of Growth” report, which highlights definitions of impact and features case studies from its members across all nine categories. For example, the report highlights how professors at the London School of Economics and Political Science have worked with pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline to improve the statistical modeling used to analyze vaccine trials. It also describes how research from the University of Manchester has inspired “Cocoa Life,” a US$400 million initiative that led to a 1,200 percent increase in U.K.-based sales of fair-trade cocoa and improved the quality of life for cocoa farmers in Ghana, India, and the Dominican Republic. (Read the full report, "Engines of Growth.")

A similar group called the League of European Research Universities (LERU) represents a network of 23 universities based in 12 countries. LERU recently published a new impact vision for its member universities, in which it argues that each school’s research agenda should no longer be driven by “competition and comparison” with other scholars. Rather, the group wants research to promote “productive interaction between stakeholders and the formulation of common goals and joint achievement of results.”

Over the last six years, AACSB International has ramped up its emphasis on impact in business education. In 2012, AACSB released its “Impact of Research” white paper; in 2013, the association announced revised accreditation standards, which suggest more than 70 ways for business schools to integrate impact into their missions, from research-based projects with companies to collaborations with policymakers. And two years ago, AACSB released its report “A Collective Vision for Business Education.”  In it, the association challenges business schools not only to become drivers of social change, but also to tell convincing narratives to demonstrate their impact performance.

But even with such resources available, many schools still struggle to embrace social significance as a primary driver for their faculty’s research, says Mijnhardt. One reason? It’s far easier to measure classic quantifiable outcomes—whether it’s the number of articles published, citations given, or grants received—than it is to measure social impact. Plus, schools are still uncertain about how they can demonstrate innovation, engagement, and impact through their faculty’s scholarly contributions for the purposes of accreditation.

This uncertainty, Mijnhardt says, has led business schools to seek external validation for their research missions. “Business schools have had a tendency to outsource their measure of academic judgment on research quality to top journals and funding organizations for selective grants. Now, they’re even beginning to outsource their sense of purpose to the United Nations and its Sustainable Development Goals,” he argues. Mijnhardt is quick to note that the overall intent of the SDGs is laudable—and necessary. But he also points out that many schools could make a greater difference in the world if they focused more on applying the unique strengths of their faculties closer to home, on problems facing their local communities.

“Mature business schools should be mission-driven institutions that are able to choose their distinguishing purposes for themselves,” he says. “They should be asking, ‘What do we do now, and what can we do better?’”

Kennedy of Imperial College believes that the REF and similar initiatives have gone a long way toward changing the mindsets of researchers—particularly business faculty who, as he puts it, “have had a troubled relationship with the idea of impact.” Some are adopting socially driven research models out of a sense of responsibility, but it won’t be long before all could be forced to do so out of necessity, says Kennedy. “Academics who don’t make this shift,” he adds, “risk becoming legends in a shrinking tribe.”

4. OPEN-ACCESS PUBLISHING

The rate of research production has been boosted by the slow but steady adoption of open-access publishing, in which papers are offered to the public for free, rather than protected behind publishers’ paywalls. In fact, the potential of open-access publishing to speed up the pace of scientific breakthroughs even has garnered the attention of two of the world’s most prominent billionaires: Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

In 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it would fund only research published in open-access formats, under a Creative Commons license or the equivalent. Then, in 2017, the foundation launched two new platforms: Gates Open Research, an online publishing portal for grant recipients, created in partnership with the Advancement of Science; and Chronos, a free cloud-based publishing service that connects Gates Foundation grant recipients to more than 24,000 vetted open-access journals.

Similarly, in 2016, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced its purchase of the search engine Meta, which uses artificial intelligence to help users search millions of scientific papers. The initiative’s founders—Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan—hope that by making Meta free and open to academia, they will enable scholars to accelerate the pace of scientific breakthroughs in healthcare.

Major publishers such as Sage Publishing and Elsevier have open-access publishing platforms, but authors who choose these options can incur fees. For example, Sage imposes an “article processing charge” to cover costs; Elsevier charges authors from US$150 to $1,800 to make articles free to readers who do not have access to an institutional subscription. In both cases, authors retain the copyright to their work, but for many academics, the idea of authors paying to make their papers free to the public does not go far enough to support the spirit of open-access. This has led to widespread, organized efforts to make the rapid sharing and free distribution of research more the norm than the exception.

For example, several online portals have emerged over the years to help researchers evaluate the quality of open-access outlets. The Directory of Open Access Journals was started in 2003 by researchers at Sweden’s Lund University with just 300 journals in its listing; today, the DOAJ includes more than 10,000 journals, which its users curate for inclusion.

This year, another portal, Free Journal Network, launched with an initial white list of 39 open-access journals. To be included on FJN, journals must adhere to the Fair and Open Access Principles, which state that journals must be controlled by the scholarly community, allow authors to retain copyright of their articles, and charge no fees for publication. (See www.fairopenaccess.org.)

FJN’s founder Mark Wilson, a computer science professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, describes the platform’s mission in a June post on the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Impact Blog. FJN, he writes, aims to “encourage best practices among journals” and “demonstrate a clear alternative to commercially owned journals that is ‘professional’ (in quality) but ‘amateur’ in the best sense.”

While many view the Fair and Open Access Principles as a boon for research, not all open-access journals can thrive on volunteer support. Wilson and Alex Holcombe, an associate professor of psychology at Australia’s University of Sydney, raise this point in a June 2017 blog post for the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group. Underlying the principles, they note, is a hope that academic institutions will unite “to fund reasonable operating costs of OA journals.”

“ WE WANTED TO CREATE A WAY TO SHARE RESEARCH AS BROADLY, FREELY, AND EARLY AS POSSIBLE.” —GREGG GORDON, SSRN

5. ACADEMIC SOCIAL NETWORKS

Before the rise of open access publishing and social media, academics in the social sciences, especially, might share early-stage research only among close colleagues. Most wouldn’t share papers in public forums until the work was in finished form. But many argue that by widely sharing very early-stage scholarship, researchers can refine their methodologies, work through initial problems more efficiently, and create stronger research at a faster pace.

This belief has inspired the creation of academic social networking platforms such as ResearchGate, Mendeley, and Academia.edu, all founded in 2008. These networks make it possible for faculty to post working papers, invite feedback, join communities, and start discussion threads with millions of scholars around the world. Academia.edu now has more than 63 million user profiles, and ResearchGate has 15 million. Mendeley, purchased by Elsevier in 2013, has 6 million users.

Ijad Madisch, a managing director at ResearchGate, co-founded that platform with fellow physician Sören Hofmayer. They wanted to challenge “century-old traditions of how science is communicated,” says Madisch. Earlier this year, ResearchGate launched a mobile app for iOS devices, which he hopes will make it even easier for scholars to connect, share, and drive discovery.

Madisch views the community’s growth as a sign that academics increasingly see the benefit of sharing their early-stage ideas with larger numbers of scholars. “I’m most humbled by the scientists who use the platform and thereby change the way science works for the better,” he says.

One of the oldest academic sharing sites is the Social Science Research Network. Founded in 1994 by economists Michael Jensen and Wayne Marr, SSRN was intended to “help schools create research faster,” says SSRN’s managing director Gregg Gordon. Purchased by Elsevier in 2016, SSRN has more than 800,000 papers posted on its platform. “We wanted to create a way to share research as broadly, freely, and early as possible,” says Gordon. “The more researchers are connected, the more ideas we can help move through the pipeline.”

SSRN is designed to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration. For example, in traditional publishing, a paper on the U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act might appear only in a single finance or accounting journal, says Gordon, but once a submitted paper is accepted for completeness and relevance on SSRN, it can be cross-posted on any of more than 30 disciplinary networks. “That accounting paper could be posted on networks for regulatory economics, securities law, corporate governance, even sustainability,” says Gordon. “An accountant can show how he looks at a problem to the economist, the lawyer, the management scholar, the corporate governance scholar, the sustainability expert. Everyone can look at the same problem from different perspectives.”

In addition, SSRN has created “negative results” categories, where researchers can share theories that were not proven. By sharing null results, researchers can save time for other scholars who are considering following similar paths. It creates a win-win scenario: Scholars can receive downloads, shares, and citations of even their unsuccessful studies, and other scholars can learn something from the data.

And just as researchers are finding niche datasets on platforms like WRDS, they’re seeking out niche fields of study on SSRN, which has created a number of disciplinary subcategories devoted to emerging topics. Smaller, lesser-known fields offer early-career researchers a better chance to find audiences for their work, says Gordon.

“There aren’t many journals for a niche field like bioethics law, but we’ve created the classification,” he explains. “Whether these niche categories have 100 papers or 1,000, the cost to us of creating a micro community is minimal. If somebody wants to read research in a smaller field, we have a home for it.”

Even with their advantages, academic sharing platforms are not without their critics. Last year, ResearchGate was sued by Elsevier and the American Chemical Society for copyright infringement, and an international association of medical publishers wrote an open letter to the platform to air its concerns about its article-sharing model. Academia.edu has been criticized for adopting a for-profit model that makes money from researchers’ efforts.

But despite the criticism, these platforms hold a great deal of promise for management researchers, says Mijnhardt. “Global academic communities have huge potential to encourage interdisciplinary encounters, and they offer new opportunities for our researchers to be inspired by other researchers and practitioners,” he says. “These resources are still underused by business schools as a way to advance the reputations of their institutions.”

ALTERNATIVE METRICS PROVIDE A HOLISTIC VIEW OF RESEARCH IMPACT.

6. ALTERNATIVE METRICS

There’s a long-standing maxim in higher education that many researchers are increasingly taking to heart: “What gets measured gets done.” Just as an emphasis on publication and citation counts drove academics to value those classic bibliometrics, a strategic shift could drive them to similarly value alternative metrics—often referred to as “altmetrics.” These nontraditional measures include social media shares and mentions, page views, follower counts, page downloads, and patent citations.

Because of its goal to generate more internationally recognized research, FGV-EAESP still relies on common metrics such as publications and citation counts, says Wood. But in recent years, the school also has started to track other key performance indicators such as page visits, paper downloads, social media followers, and video views. Additionally, its research centers help faculty create profiles on ResearchGate and Academia.edu to connect them with a larger community of scholars.

“We are constantly testing other measures and writing cases and mini-cases of research impact,” says Wood. “We believe social impact is better captured through qualitative reporting than through numbers. We are getting better, but there is still a long way to go.”

At the Rotterdam School of Management, Mijnhardt helps faculty use a range of platforms to measure the reach of their work. A company called Digital Science provides tools such as Altmetric, which benchmarks the performance of faculty’s research against that of others in their fields, and Dimension, its newest tool that tracks grant performance and patent citations. ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and Mendeley also all post metrics based on user interactivity—reads, shares, follower counts—within their communities.

This level of tracking—of so many measures, across so many platforms—takes time, which means that business schools might need to designate support staff to help faculty incorporate altmetrics into their portfolios. But if integrated into a deliberate strategy, the wide array of tools available can provide a more holistic understanding of the effect of faculty’s work on the community, says Mijnhardt. He believes that adopting such a “portfolio approach” is more responsible than evaluating faculty on publication counts and citations alone.

‘WE MUST DO BETTER’

These six trends promise to only strengthen over the next few years, and they are pushing more scholars to advocate for the widespread adoption of socially driven research practices. For example, in 2017, 24 business faculty at 23 university-based business schools launched the Responsible Research in Business Management initiative, which promotes a view of business research as “producing credible knowledge that is ultimately useful for addressing problems important to business and society.” RRBM is endorsed by more than 800 individual supporters and institutional partners.

Regarding the call for responsible scholarship, Mijnhardt sees parallels between business and the medical sciences, in that both disciplines create research that has real-world—and often life-anddeath—consequences. And like the business community, the medical profession is having debates about viewing research through a more socially responsible lens.

Mijnhardt points to a 2016 report targeting the biosciences, “100 Metrics to Assess and Communicate the Value of Biomedical Research.” Prepared in collaboration with the nonprofit research group RAND Europe and the Association of American Medical Colleges, the report acts as an “ideas book” for measuring impact. Co-authors Susan Guthrie, Joachim Krapels, Catherine Lichten, and Steven Wooding consider 100 metrics in eight categories: research, individual and institutional prestige, pedagogy and career development, research and institutional processes, dissemination, policy, health, and the economy.

Under the “health” category, the authors include the measure of “number of lives touched”—a metric not often discussed in regard to business scholarship. But if business academics were to measure the power of their own research in terms of the number of lives it touches, Mijnhardt argues, their perceptions of impact might become much clearer.

Wood of FGV-EAESP would like to see business schools do far more to reward and champion innovative research practices, and he’d like to see business scholars move away from “hyperspecialized” research to target larger social problems. With these changes, he says, business schools could produce scholarship with greater significance to society.

“I like to believe that the quest for social impact will be the biggest force shaping business research in the next few years,” says Wood. “In countries such as Brazil, India, South Africa, and many other developing nations with enormous challenges, research orientation has deep moral implications. We must do more, and better.”

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2018 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.




Related Reading: How academic sharing and open-access publishing have opened the door to cheaters and predatory publishers, in “The Dark Side of Alternative Metrics.