‘Publish over purpose’ culture undermining business schools

A fixation on publishing in ‘academic comic books’ is subverting the values permeating business schools, conference hears

June 12, 2024
Young man resting on the floor with a book on his face
Source: iStock/José Antonio Luque Olmedo

A “fundamentally broken and in some cases rotten” research system has captured business schools so thoroughly that it is subverting the values they transmit, a conference has heard.

Carl Rhodes, dean of the business school at the University of Technology Sydney, said publishing in big-name journals had become the overriding objective of academics who researched economic inequality.

Professor Rhodes said medical researchers were primarily motivated to cure diseases, not publish articles about their cures. But the reverse applied in economic research, he told Times Higher Education’s Global Sustainable Development Congress.

“So much emphasis is put on elite publication that it…has taken over the substantive work [of] reducing material inequalities in the world,” he said. “These forces of cultural conformity are so strong...[and] predatory publishing houses exploit this for their own commercial gain.

“It’s not because there’s some evil conspirators out there planning things. It’s embedded in the culture. It’s embedded in the values that we transmit to junior people about what counts. If we’re really interested…in changing things for the better, the way we manage research – particularly publications – is a major roadblock to progress.”

Elite publication was not “bad in itself”, he said. “But if that’s all we do, we’ve pretty much done nothing except entertain one another through these kinds of academic comic books.”

In a session exploring business schools’ contribution to sustainability, Professor Rhodes said the publication culture was firmly entrenched. “It’s taken us a long time to get into this mess; it’s going to take us a long time to get out.” But business school deans must “make sure a broader set of achievements is rewarded”, he insisted.

“People don’t enter…academia without wanting to do something important. We’ve got to reinvigorate those values and…reward it, promote people for it and continue to push and push and push.

“We’ve got to…encourage people as much as possible to break out…and to do something that actually makes a difference.”

He said the scale and impact of business school research was “relatively insignificant” compared with other faculties’ output, despite having almost limitless potential. “All aspects of human endeavour have some form of business, economic or commercial dimension to them,” he noted. “The future of business research is interdisciplinary. It’s really about forming partnerships with other people that can enable [us] to make a difference.”

Rana Sobh, dean of the College of Business and Economics at Qatar University, said sustainability was usually an “add-on topic” in business school curricula. “[It might be] chapter 13 in a textbook or a few slides here and there, or sometimes even stand-alone courses, but it’s not enough,” she said.

“We need to come up with regenerative business models that not only minimise the negative impact but create positive impact – and that’s challenging.”

Stephanie Villemagne, chief operating officer at ESSCA School of Management in France, said sustainability components in business degrees – however laudable – were “not going to change the world”. 

“We’re not doing charity work here,” she told the forum. “We need business schools to teach…our students business models that actually will make money.

“I’m sorry to say, that’s what they go to business school for. They want to build businesses that will drive the economy [and] make money for themselves and for the society around them. Once we understand that, maybe we can start looking at those business models differently.”


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