Rethinking the Research Model

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Wednesday, June 23, 2021
By Stefan Stremersch, Russell S. Winer, Nuno Camacho
Photo by iStock/SvetaZi
Why it’s imperative that business schools reward faculty for the quality and creativity of their research—not merely the quantity.

For many business schools, their faculty’s academic research is a main pillar of their business models. They allocate a large part of their resources to scholarship in the form of faculty time, centers, labs, and budgets. Yet, does the research conducted by today’s business school professors truly add value to the schools that employ them? Does it add value to students, to firms, and to society as a whole?

Not nearly enough. In fact, when we recently conducted our own research, based on a survey of deans and faculty, our findings substantiated prior claims that the business school research model is broken. Here, we share some results from that study to shed some light on the problem with business school research and offer several solutions.

Poorly Designed Incentives

We conducted a survey to determine how business school faculty and administrators assessed their schools’ current research incentive systems. Our sample included 234 marketing professors from 20 countries, as well as 22 deans, associate deans, and business practitioners.

Our data and analyses show that one of the biggest problems with our current research model lies in the incentive systems business schools have in place for their research faculty. These systems largely overemphasize the number of publications their faculty members produce and underemphasize the rigor, relevance, and creativity of that research. At many schools, administrators use these systems to evaluate faculty members’ scholarly output as a way to determine promotions and salary increases.

Such quantitative metrics have become even more deeply entrenched in the business school model as the business world itself grows more data-driven. As a result, some faculty have become prone to “vita gaming,” in which they find ways to add publications to their curricula vitae by any means necessary. They do what we call “farming numbers”—they increase their publication and citation counts by looking for opportunities to co-author papers with as little effort expended as possible. They publish in low-tier outlets and build citation counts through social media campaigns.

Some faculty have become prone to “vita gaming,” in which they find ways to add publications to their curricula vitae by any means necessary.

It goes without saying that these activities serve only to lower both the rigor and relevance of faculty’s research. But these actions are primarily the result of poorly designed incentives instituted by the schools themselves. We argue that such incentives are a major threat to the business model of contemporary business schools. If faculty lack incentives to produce research relevant to business practitioners, the overall quality of business education could decline and business school graduates could become less attractive to industry.

Three Dimensions of Business School Health

The question we ask in our study is simple: Do these incentive systems contribute to what we call a business school’s “health”? We define a school’s health by how well it performs across three dimensions: technical, institutional, and managerial.

At a technical level, for example, healthy business schools possess good research health and teaching health. In other words, their research faculty are leaders in their fields, publish regularly in top journals, and assume academic leadership positions. They have high standards for teaching and offer excellent learning environments for students. Along this dimension, in fact, we find that relevance is a more important factor than rigor in the health of a business school’s teaching.

At the institutional level, healthy business schools attract strong external support. They have good relationships with alumni and donors, who commit substantial resources to the school. These schools also possess high institutional integrity, in which faculty and students uphold the highest ethical standards. Finally, at the managerial level, healthy business schools have strong leadership support, excellent administrative support, and sufficient resources, in both facilities and funding.

Our key recommendation is that business school leaders design incentive systems that take this holistic set of outcomes into account. Only then will they support the long-term health of their institutions.

Different Metrics, Greater Transparency

If business school leaders want to maintain the relevance and the health of their programs, we recommend that they take four concrete actions:

Change the measures of progress. While we do not expect quantitative metrics to disappear, we know that they can be substantially refined. Business school administrators can go beyond simply counting publications and citations to evaluating research based on its quality, creativity, and relevance to practitioners. 

One of our interviewees, a dean at a large public institution, put it this way: “My frustration is when I’m drawing on a department chair for information, I get [only] counts” of publications and citations. No context is provided to indicate whether the research has had an actual impact on practice.

One way to refine the metrics is to adjust the evaluation of publication counts by accounting for journal quality. Schools can accomplish this by tiering journals in different fields and noting how many fall into the different tiers. A commonly used list of the top journals in business fields is the one employed by the University of Texas at Dallas to rank business school departments. Some schools like INSEAD publish their own rankings.

To place a higher emphasis on the creativity of a study, business schools can adapt well-established procedures to evaluate research creativity that are used in disciplines such as the arts, architecture, and language.

Schools could similarly adjust the way they evaluate citation counts by assessing citations of high-quality papers only. Schools could stop counting articles that faculty members was invited to publish without going through a peer review or articles for which they merely supplied a comment. Schools also could assess whether an article’s citations demonstrate the researcher is viewed as an authority in his or her field.

To place a higher emphasis on the creativity of a study, business schools can adapt well-established procedures to evaluate research creativity that are used in disciplines such as the arts, architecture, and language study. For example, the Consensual Assessment Technique uses ratings from a panel of experts. Multidimensional scales for evaluating creativity also exist. One such scale is the well-known Creative Product Semantic Scale, which evaluates a “product” on three dimensions: novelty (whether it is original), resolution (whether it is useful), and elaboration and synthesis (whether it is well-crafted).

Be transparent about school finances. Several of the deans we interviewed indicated that they believe that research faculty are overpaid for the research they do. In the words of a current dean: “Nowadays, it is too hard to get faculty to do things, so you start compensating, paying for everything.” On the other hand, the research faculty we surveyed generally feel that they are underpaid. In other words, they do not feel they are part of a joint enterprise to undertake voluntary activities to improve the school’s health. This mismatch in perspectives is not sustainable.

Business schools need to lift the curtain on their finances, so that administrators and faculty can better understand the day-to-day issues that the other faces. For example, deans could present detailed financial data at faculty meetings, so that faculty understand the factors that support their compensation. Faculty then could align their research activities in ways that contribute more to their schools’ financial welfare at the technical, institutional, and managerial levels. 

One important byproduct of such transparency is that it could potentially inspire faculty to pursue more cross-disciplinary research, which can attract significantly more external funding to their schools.

In this respect, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an unexpected benefit. It has compelled many administrators to reveal the financial impacts of the pandemic, exposing the fault lines in university finances to their faculty.

Emphasize applied research. We believe that business schools also need to drastically improve the practical importance of their faculty’s research and expertise. This is particularly important to business school deans and associate deans in our survey, who lamented that their schools were increasingly emphasizing the rigor of research rather than relevance.

For example, as a former dean at a top-30 U.S. business school commented, “When I look at what’s in the journals, it strikes me that most of it is pretty irrelevant to what’s going on in the world. So, I think that’s a huge issue.”

Business schools must reward faculty who produce fewer papers of high quality, and they must stop rewarding (and perhaps even penalize?) faculty who produce more publications of mediocre quality.

It is time for business schools to reverse this trend by encouraging faculty to produce research that is strongly grounded in practice and applicable to the problems that society faces. Schools can produce more applied research by encouraging their faculty to engage in activities such as consulting for companies, participating on boards, acting as expert witnesses, and delivering executive education.

Take a “less is more” approach. At this point, it’s clear that we are advocating for business faculty to do less research that’s of higher quality—that is, research with greater rigor, relevance, and creativity. But for this to happen, schools must allow faculty more time to bring such work to fruition, and they must communicate clearly to faculty that such work is valued.

In other words, business schools must reward faculty who produce fewer papers of high quality, and they must stop rewarding (and perhaps even penalize?) faculty who produce more publications of mediocre quality. They must recognize that, in sum, there can be negative marginal returns to encouraging faculty to focus only on research quantity.

Models of Business School Health

In conclusion, faculty research is often a critical contributor to all three dimensions of healthy business schools. At the technical level, it supports a school's ability to build prestige and attract top students. At the institutional level, it helps a school maintain strong ties to alumni and other constituents and attract external support. At the managerial level, academic research can continually contribute to the overall health of the institution—but this is true only when business school leaders design incentives to promote this objective.

It’s time for business school administrators to devote their resources to ways that contribute to, not detract from, the overall health of their schools. The main route to achieving this goal is straightforward: Devalue research quantity and reward research quality and creativity.

Stefan Stremersch
Desiderius Erasmus Distinguished Chair of Economics, Erasmus School of Economics, Erasmus University Rotterdam
Russell S. Winer
William H. Joyce Professor of Marketing, Stern School of Business, New York University
Nuno Camacho
Associate Professor of Marketing, Erasmus School of Economics, Erasmus University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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