The Problem With Research Journals

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Monday, May 30, 2022
By Adeel Akmal, Robin Gauld, Nataliya Podgorodnichenko
Photo by iStock/Mordolff
The “rules of the game” in academic publishing discourage contributors from focusing on practice and impact. What needs to change?
  • Business journals facilitate communication among researchers but do little to solve global challenges or improve practice.
  • Journal submission policies result in articles that are long, difficult to read, and have few practical implications.
  • To promote more relevant business research, journals should adopt the publishing models of science and healthcare publications.

 
“The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: ‘That’s academic,’” wrote The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in a 2014 article. “In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.”

When it comes to business research and its impact on practice and global challenges, this statement often applies. Indeed, the gap between research and practice has been actively debated. Many factors contribute to this, and one of them is the current state of academic journals.

Academic journals are the dominant means of communicating about research. However, while business journals may facilitate communication within the research community, they do little to address global challenges or make contributions to practice. It is widely acknowledged that business practitioners rarely read academic journals and that business research has a long way to go in terms of societal impact.

Do academic journals actually create barriers to engagement and impact? To answer that question, we analyzed the publishing requirements of 67 top-tier business journals from the fields of accounting, management, marketing, and tourism. We chose the ones that were rated A*—the highest rating, which reflects the journal’s reputation and impact in the field—in the Australian Business Deans Council (ABDC) list.

We began with this list because the three of us work at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. However, the ABDC rating is widely used by other business schools for rankings and faculty management. It also corresponds with others such the Academic Journal Guide of the European Chartered Association of Business Schools and the list maintained by the University of Texas Dallas.

What’s Broken?

We began by analyzing “the rules of the game.” That is, we looked at the journal descriptions and submission guidelines that communicate expectations in terms of content and presentation. We identified seven journal features that arguably limit both engagement with practitioners and impact on practice.

High subscription costs. Few business journals are open access; most require a reader payment. In addition, some journals only have institutional subscription models—that is, only institutions and people affiliated with them can obtain access.

Structure and writing requirements. The style of an article in a business journal is unlikely to be engaging, in part because none of the journals have readability requirements. In fact, author guidelines very rarely mention any expectation of readability for general audience members who might not be academics or specialists in a particular discipline. Most of the 67 journals we studied provide almost no guidance on structure or required sections. For all these reasons, a business journal article can be dry and excessively lengthy for practitioners, even if they’re interested in the topic.

Article length. The readability of articles in business journals is also compromised because they tend to be long. For almost all the journals we studied, the suggested length is 8,000 to 10,000 words, which translates to 40 to 50 pages. Some accept even longer papers with no specific word limit at all. In addition, most journals only publish full articles that include lengthy explanations of theory, methodology, and methods. Rarely do journals offer shorter formats such as research summaries, commentaries, or work focusing on research application, all of which would be more appealing to practitioners.

The style of an article in a business journal is unlikely to be engaging, in part because none of the journals have readability requirements.

Audiences and contributors. The submissions guidelines of most journals make it clear that these publications are aimed at academics. Forty journals explicitly state that they are theory-focused, whereas only three aim to bridge theory and practice. Only three journals mention practitioners as prospective contributors. It is reasonable to expect that authors and reviewers take this message into account as they develop articles for publication and consider where to submit their pieces.

Lack of practitioners on editorial boards. More than half of the journals we studied fail to include practitioners on their editorial boards. One journal stands out by having 10 editorial board members from practice organizations. Three of the publications feature three practitioners each, and 17 include either one or two members from practice organizations.

Research relevance. Because so few practitioners are explicitly involved as editors, contributors, or readers of academic journals, few articles emphasize the value of practical implications. While practical implications often are expected to be part of academic papers, these sections are usually short and very general. Forty-four journals we studied do not expect a relevance to practice section in submissions and make no mention of such a section in author guidelines.

Similarly, most journals do not ask for sections that might convey the basic research ideas to practitioners without requiring them to read full articles. For instance, they do not require authors to provide highlights, graphical abstracts, or executive summaries—bullet points that showcase the novelty and findings of the research.

Long review processes. Finally, business journals have notoriously long submission review processes, which can make research outdated. Only seven of 67 journals provide an estimated review period, but these are neither accurate nor actively managed.

What Needs to Change?

If journal expectations embody norms for business research communication, then our analysis suggests that publishing practices neither encourage nor facilitate communication between academia and practice; rather, the very top journals reflect an explicit theoretical and academic orientation. Yet business schools place a heavy emphasis on these journals and reward staff for publishing in them.

Our study did not seek to answer the question of whether business journals want to become a recognized medium of communication between academia and practice. However, it’s a question that has profound implications for broader business school relevance. If the answer is “yes,” it’s time to revisit the established rules. Journals should reformat and reorient their formal requirements and author guidelines to promote communication with practice.

Drawing on the practices of key healthcare and science publications, such as the The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), Science, and Nature, we suggest that business journals adopt five simple changes.

First, make it the norm to request papers that are 2,500 to 4,000 words long. Present important information on study rigor in supplementary files, which will allow authors to clearly and succinctly communicate their key findings while also demonstrating the trustworthiness of their studies. Accepting shorter articles will help reduce review periods so that findings will reach their audiences in a timely manner.

Second, explicitly require articles to be written for a general audience, so that educated nonexperts or those working in other disciplines can digest the content.

It’s time to revisit the established rules. Journals should reorient their formal requirements and author guidelines to promote communication with practice.

Third, create a clear industry standard for IMRAD—introduction, method, results, and discussion. This structure will make articles more readable, particularly for practitioners who might be less interested in complete articles.

Fourth, standardize the way findings are communicated and discussed. Look to healthcare and science journals for models. For instance, in the framework of The BMJ, authors are required to supply the following elements:

  • A statement of principal findings.
  • The strengths and weaknesses of the study, including those found in the study design and methods.
  • The study’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to other research, and information about how it makes new contributions to knowledge.
  • The meaning of the study for practice, including implications for professionals, policymakers, and other stakeholders.
  • A discussion of unanswered questions and directions for future research.

Finally, as healthcare and science journals do, promote various types of submissions, including letters, viewpoints, reviews, and reports of practical applications. Ironically, an article such as this would struggle to find a place in the 67 journals we studied.

What Should Happen Next?

To summarize, our analysis suggests that the current norms of academic publishing impede the communication of research to practice. We suggest that business journals learn from the publishing models of healthcare and science outlets and modify their guidelines to ensure that articles are readable, timely, and connected to practice.

Of course, it would not be a straightforward process to reorient business journals in this manner, given the way in which the top business schools approach recruitment, tenure, promotion, and rankings. Solving this “wicked” problem requires the commitment of multiple stakeholders.

For instance, business schools themselves need to align with the need for change. They must be joined by their faculty and leadership, who routinely sit on the editorial boards of the top journals. Additionally, accrediting bodies such as AACSB and EFMD can play a role in this reorientation, in part through their commitment to societal impact. Initiatives such as Responsible Research in Business and Management also can guide academic publishing toward research that is useful to society and has real-world impact.

We urge the business academic community to give serious consideration to the issues raised here and start moving toward a publishing model that brings research to practice. We need a new approach if business school research is going to help solve the challenges that face our businesses, our society, and our planet.

Authors
Adeel Akmal
Research Fellow, Centre for Health Systems and Technology, University of Otago
Robin Gauld
Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Otago Business School, Co-Director of the Centre for Health Systems and Technology, University of Otago
Nataliya Podgorodnichenko
Lecturer in the DBA Programme, Otago Business School, University of Otago
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