Source: David Humphries
The latest iteration of the so-called International Guide to Academic Journal Quality, published last month by the Association of Business Schools, has provoked deep unease on the part of many academics. It has even been formally criticised in a British Academy of Management press release, suggesting that whatever residual confidence remained in journal rankings is fast being eroded.
But to my mind, the ABS guide is only one symptom of a deeper malaise in business and management scholarship.
The guide purports to identify those journals in which the “best” work is likely to be clustered, thus helping new scholars to decide where to publish. At the same time, its editors acknowledge that top-quality work is often found outside the “top” journals. Although they do not say so, it is likewise widely recognised that such journals often publish work that is uninteresting, mistaken and irrelevant.
The 2014 research excellence framework illustrates the point. Data compiled by members of the business and management studies subpanel are currently circulating, comparing the scores awarded to 1,000 submitted outputs with the ABS rankings of the journals they were published in. They show that a paper in a top-ranked ABS journal had a 39 per cent chance of being graded 4* by the REF panel, roughly similar odds of being graded 3* and a 20 per cent chance of being deemed 2*.
As the British Academy of Management points out, the guide is also hopelessly biased in favour of US journals: of the 33 publications it currently identifies as “world elite”, 31 are American. It strikes me that these journals are no less drawn than their “lesser” cousins to the triviality that pervades much of the scholarship in our field. They are dominated by functionalist and positivist perspectives that take the status quo for granted, ask few critical questions of business practice, and largely ignore the most important issues facing business and society.
For example, four of the ABS’ world elite, Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, Administrative Science Quarterly and Organization Science, have yet to publish a substantive paper dealing with the 2008 banking meltdown. What use are “world elite” journals that can ignore the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s, one that has impoverished millions, threatened the eurozone and revived the supposedly dormant prospect of sovereign debt default? And what use are journal ranking systems that fail to take such disgraceful neglect into account?
So, if the near collapse of the world economy isn’t important, what is? Well, the December 2014 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly includes a paper whose “core hypothesis”, according to its abstract, “is that the more similar the initially experienced level of organisational munificence is to the level of munificence in a subsequent period, the higher an individual’s job performance”. That is to say: “The relationship between what I call ‘imprint-environment fit’ and performance is contingent on the individual’s career stage when entering the organization and the influence of secondhand imprinting resulting from the social transmission of others’ imprints.”
What I think this means is that successful organisations can afford to treat their employees well, and that when they do so consistently, job performance improves. It also helps that, since new employees meet others who are already happy, their mood proves contagious. Who would have thought it? Truly, an empty tin often makes the loudest noise.
It is not irrelevant that much of the writing in business and management scholarship is appalling, like a concert performed by musicians with tin ears whose instruments are permanently out of tune. It seems that when we have nothing much to say, we attempt to distract attention from that sad fact by making our points as pretentiously and lengthily as possible. Top journals only encourage this approach by prioritising “theory development” above all else.
Obsession with theory also encourages authors to dress up old ideas in new clothes, sidestep controversial issues that challenge current business practice, and focus on the small questions that are more likely to be quickly turned into another publication.
But publication, surely, should mainly be about having interesting ideas, writing well, addressing real-world problems and making a difference. And if the ABS guide stands in the way of that, it should be retired. Failing that, perhaps the rest of us should agree to treat it with the disrespect that it has worked so hard to deserve.
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