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July 12, 2012

With key deadlines in the research excellence framework looming, the pressure on scholars and universities to increase their research output is building.

But Marcel Bogers, associate professor in innovation management at the University of Southern Denmark, believes that the emphasis on quantity over quality in systems such as the REF is detrimental to the profession and is making his peers forget why they do research in the first place.

In a post on the London School of Economics' Impact of Social Sciences blog, he writes that published articles increasingly make only "an incremental contribution at the cost of more imaginative and innovative ideas".

Using the field of management studies as an example, he cites a forthcoming article in the Journal of Management Studies by Mats Alvesson and Jorgen Sandberg, scholars at Lund University and the University of Queensland respectively, titled: "Has management studies lost its way? Ideas for more imaginative and innovative research".

"In their article, Alvesson and Sandberg argue that there is a troubling shortage of novel ideas and really strong contributions," Professor Bogers writes. "This is particularly a problem as the submissions to management journals go up, while the acceptance rate accordingly goes down...This creates a paradox in which one would expect more high-impact papers being published, although in reality the opposite occurs."

He says that a "central explanation" for this paradox is the strong prevalence of what the authors call "gap-spotting" research.

"Even though such research may be (increasingly) rigorous in theorizing and methodological procedure, it remains focused on systematically filling a gap in existing research," he writes. "Instead of these incremental advances, what we need is more research that challenges taken-for-granted assumptions."

Professors Alvesson and Sandberg identify reasons why "gap-spotting" has become so prevalent. One is how institutions such as governments, universities, business schools and funding bodies regulate the conduct of research.

"The problem is that many universities use assessment formulas, such as the...REF in the UK, that merely count the number of publications in journals on a designated list. This in turn encourages researchers to publish in a particular journal rather than challenging assumptions," Professor Bogers writes.

Professors Alvesson and Sandberg suggest that governments should "reconsider their focus on counting publications in top-ranked journals, by putting more emphasis on citation count and by broadening the publication outlets", he says. Universities could take similar action in their appointment and promotion decisions "while [trying] to nurture a more scholarly orientation and consensus-challenging research through training and workshops". The authors also suggest reforming the review process by encouraging or "upgrading" good ideas and de-emphasising "checklists for faultfinding".

Finally, academics should abandon gap-spotting, Professor Bogers advises, and instead be "curious, reflective, willing and able to question existing frameworks" and "eager to produce new insights".

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