Societal Impact: The Role of Academic Publishers

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Wednesday, July 10, 2024
By Matthew Waters
Illustration via iStock/hatchakorn Srisook
Producing positive societal impact is a team effort that scholars, academic administrators, and publishers must all undertake together.

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  • By providing a range of publishing formats, models, and outlets for research, publishers play a wide-reaching role in shaping business and society. 
  • Research can create long-lasting value through a slow, cumulative process, in which findings gradually emerge over time. 
  • There is a need for faculty, with the support of their deans, to publish in more outlets for specialized, responsible research on topics such as sustainable business and educational impact.  

When thinking about societal impact and the influence business schools have in the world, I often think of a popular quote by Paul Samuelson, the late economist and professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He said, “I don't care who writes a nation’s laws—or crafts its advanced treaties—if I can write its economics textbooks.”  

For Samuelson, a way to exert true power and influence in society was by introducing Keynesian economic thinking to students through his introductory textbook, first published just after World War II. In Samuelson’s time, the impact of academic publishing was both conceptual and instrumental. At the highest level, economic textbooks could radically influence the way people thought about economics in McCarthyite America; their content informed government fiscal policy both in the U.S. and around the world.  

But before the ideas these textbooks contained could influence government policy, their content first had academic impact in classrooms on the students who read them. And before the textbooks reached students, scholars were engaging with the theory and concepts in the texts. 

In academia, we spend a great deal of time discussing societal impact at governmental and societal levels. But shouldn’t we talk about our initial engagement in the ideas that lead to impact as much as we talk about the impact itself? In many ways, isn’t the exchange of knowledge as important as the outcome? Isn’t the journey as important as the destination? 

Publishers provide a wide range of formats and models through which impactful ideas can be transmitted and shared via scholarly papers and teaching. In this sense, academic publishers play an important role in shaping business and wider society, whether they are facilitating research impact in an open access and interdisciplinary journal, enabling teaching impact through more diverse case studies, or supporting personal impact via an AI skills-building online course

Shouldn’t we talk about our initial engagement in the ideas that lead to impact as much as we talk about the impact itself?

It is encouraging to see business schools increasingly focus their research and teaching on timely topics such as diversity, equity, inclusion, Indigenous perspectives, stakeholder value, social purpose, sustainable development, the circular economy, and the ethics of technology. But we also must acknowledge the critical role that publishers play in elevating the importance of such topics.  

As my colleague, Rachel Taliaferro put it when she spoke at AACSB’s 2021 International Conference and Annual Meeting about the need for more cases featuring diverse protagonists, publishers “shape what’s available, what gets readership, and what gets taught.” Hence, as publishers, we carry a duty of care.  

Commitments to Long-Term Impact

At Sage Publishing, we take this responsibility very seriously. Sage has focused on the social and behavioral sciences for nearly 60 years. Over that time, the company has pursued its broader mission of contributing to what the company’s founder, Sara Miller McCune, has aptly described as “The Four Justices”: economic, educational, environmental, and social justice. These provide us with clear direction as a publisher in working toward positive societal impact. 

From a publishing perspective, we are well aware of how research can be weaponized and misused for nefarious ends in a culture war environment. Societal impact can produce both positive and negative consequences, as noted in a recent white paper contribution by Renate Meyer, former editor of Sage’s Organization Studies journal and a professor at WU Vienna. This is why we support organizations like The Conversation that allow academic researchers to be the communicators of their own research to new generalist audiences.  

From a distribution perspective, we recognize that there is asymmetrical access to academic content across countries in the Global North and the Global South. As Ron Tuninga, AACSB’s vice president and managing director of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, said to me recently, “When organizations use the ‘EMEA’ acronym, they tend to ignore the ‘MEA.’” That’s why we believe it is important to ensure that people in developing countries have equitable access to research

Finally, from an operational and production perspective, we are highly conscious of publishing’s carbon footprint and environmental impact. Collectively, publishers still print and transport large amounts of paper despite the shift toward digital content. This reality highlights the key role of the United Nations’ SDG Publishers Compact and its signatories, which include Sage and many others.

We know that impactful research requires deep work and sufficient space for reflection.

But no matter what perspective we consider as publishers, we know that research impact is most often the result of a slow process—it is the culmination of many batons being passed and many findings emerging gradually over time. This slow pace can frustrate global stakeholders, especially as society’s grand challenges become increasingly urgent. Policymakers want to see scholarship produce an immediate ROI, and grant-funding organizations often demand swift outcomes.  

Yet we know that impactful research requires deep work and sufficient space for reflection. As Meyer stresses in the aforementioned white paper, “scientifically rigorous research is—and has to remain—academia’s core currency.”  

Ziyad Marar, Sage’s president of global publishing, reinforces this point in a 2022 article, where he highlights that we are in the business of publishing research that doesn’t necessarily offer breakthrough “Eureka!” discoveries. Rather, the impact of research is typically much more diffuse. This idea is framed well in a new course on research impact offered through Epigeum, a Sage company and online course provider. Its content emphasizes that researchers must seek to “create meaning and value,” and that this objective takes time to achieve. 

Tracking Impact Over Time

These points struck me during a recent visit to Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business in State College. While there, I met with Linda Treviño, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and Ethics. We had a long and fascinating conversation about how best to teach business ethics. For instance, one way that Treviño presents ethical dilemmas is by showing her students scenes from old movies because, as she puts it, “they’ve never seen them and have no clue what’s going to happen next!” Through her teaching, she is achieving some of the impact that Samuelson noted.  

After I noticed that Treviño had numerous framed Academy of Management awards up on the wall behind her desk, we began speaking about her decades-long scholarly contribution to her field. To counter Treviño’s modesty, I suggested that we look up her work on Sage Policy Profiles, a free-to-use tool that Sage has developed with Overton, a searchable database of policy documents and academic papers. The tool allows academics to see where their research has been cited in policy documents and how it has had real-world impact.  

We discovered more than 200 citations of Treviño’s research in nearly 150 different policy documents across six continents. Those documents had been cited more than 750 times in 600-plus additional policy documents. In the past year alone, Treviño had been cited several times by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Bank—once again supporting Samuelson’s point about the key role of academic work.  

Other business school scholars have also been surprised by what they have discovered on Sage Policy Profiles. For example, Sabine Benoit, a professor of marketing at the University of Surrey in the U.K, and Rüdiger Hahn, a professor of sustainability management at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf in Germany, discovered that their respective research on supply chain sustainability and sustainability management has traveled into the policy sphere. Their work has been cited in documents compiled by the European Commission, the European Environment Agency, the United Nations Environment Programme, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, to name just a few.  

If you’re a published scholar, I would encourage you to take a look and see what you find. You also might consider using the tool as a metric to include in your school’s tenure and promotion applications and systems of rewards and incentives. 

Expanding ‘What Counts’ as Scholarly Research

Tools such as Sage Policy Profiles illustrate that the true power of research is about not just creating impact but discovering where impact has already taken place. For instance, the graph below shows that business and economics research is cited infrequently in other scholarly works, at least as compared to research in other subjects.  

However, when it comes to influencing policy, business and economics research outperforms research from most other disciplines. In fact, the only fields whose research is used more in policy decisions are those such as biology, medicine, and political science: 

Percentage of Citations to Subject Group 2011–20

Bar chart showing percentage of Sage publication citations to subject group for Scholarly and Policy

Source:Why Social Science? Because It Makes an Outsized Impact on Policy,” a blog post by Camille Gamboa published on February 28, 2024  

It’s clear that long-established and prominent journals—such as those in the Financial Times Top 50 journal list—have important roles to play in leading the charge to generate positive societal impact. These include several Sage publications, such as the Journal of Management and the Journal of Marketing.  

When it comes to influencing policy, business and economics research outperforms research from most other disciplines.

However, there is a simultaneous need for faculty, with the support of their deans, to publish in more outlets for specialized, responsible research. These include Sage publications such as Business & Society, Organization & Environment, Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, and the Journal of Tropical Futures: Sustainable Business, Governance & Development. These outlets are mainstream in the context of the world’s wicked problems. 

Wider impact also requires research regarding educational impact in the classroom. For this, faculty and administrators can look to pedagogical research journals such as the Journal of Management Education, the Journal of Marketing Education, and Entrepreneurship Education and Pedagogy, which provide important forums for disseminating the latest innovations and best practice in teaching and learning.  

To reach broader audiences, researchers can target not just practitioner-focused journals like the California Management Review. They also can publish in multidisciplinary open-access social science journals such as Social Media + Society that can be read by anyone with an internet connection.  

In short, if we want to drive societal impact across a wide range of readerships and forums, we must foster a much broader understanding of “what counts” toward scholarly publication in business schools. 

Publishing Principles for Positive Impact

We can find additional guidance in the Declaration on Research Assessment, or DORA, to which Sage is a signatory. DORA presents five core principles that academic publishers and journals must uphold to help support impactful research: 

  1. Reduce emphasis on the “impact factor” of journals as a promotional tool, and instead provide a variety of metrics that researchers can use to assess a journal’s performance. At the very least, place greater emphasis on the longer five-year impact factor, a metric Sage promotes on the homepages of its journals. 
  2. Provide metrics that encourage researchers to assess an article based on its content, not on the journal’s publication metrics. 
  3. Encourage responsible authorship practices, including details on the contributions of each author. 
  4. Remove access restrictions or reuse limitations on an article’s reference list. 
  5. Reduce constraints on the number of references allowable in research articles. 

Many would argue that there is a need to go further, but these principles are positive steps in the right direction.  

The fact that Sage’s independence is guaranteed enables us to think boldly around impact and take the longer-term view with academia.  We carry the strong ethical values that business schools champion through our publishing program and processes, as well as through strong working relationships and our partnerships with both schools and organizations such as the Responsible Research in Business & Management network and The PhD Project.  

After all, positive societal impact does not stem from individual efforts. It is a team sport that we must all undertake together. Sage is here to provide platforms that can help you and other scholars debate, celebrate, amplify, lift up, and spotlight scholarly work. We strive to switch the narrative about societal impact, from one that focuses on challenges to one that effects true change. 

Above all, we are here to collaborate with you. If you have any questions or wish to continue the conversation, you can reach me at [email protected]

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Matthew Waters
Senior Publisher for Business & Management, Sage
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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