Why are ‘elite’ management journals silent on issues that matter?

By Bill Harley and Peter Fleming / In 2013, the US Academy of Management conference (AoM) – the world’s premier meeting of management scholars – took place in Florida. The theme was compellingly called ‘Capitalism in Question’. Thousands of scholars presented papers on the dark side of global capitalism, studying the stark wealth inequalities now characterizing many economies, the devastating effects of global warming, and the unbridled power of big business. It was exciting to see the collective mind of this vibrant community – with nearly 20,000 members – eschew the ‘business-as-usual’ approach and tackle the ‘grand challenges’ facing humanity. Similar forums in management studies have followed suit, like the European Group for Organization Studies and the biannual Critical Management Studies conference. The 2013 AoM seemed to signal a sea change in the academy, echoing wider public apprehensions about the state of the world today.     

A few years later we were sitting in a Sydney cafe reminiscing about the conference and had a startling realization. We could recall seeing little evidence in the leading management journals that the good intentions expressed at the AoM meeting had translated into published articles. Whatever happened to all those research papers questioning capitalism? Management scholars were obviously engaging with pressing issues, but were the field’s leading journals publishing any of it? We had a hunch that they weren’t and decided to look at the empirical evidence. This involved reading and coding approximately 5,500 articles published in ‘elite’ management journals between 2008 and 2018. We focused on general management outlets from the ‘UT Dallas List’ because it’s often considered the gold standard of quality in the field. The aim was to measure how many critical papers appeared during this period on subjects like gender and race discrimination, the global financial crisis, corporate exploitation/domination, and the Anthropocene.

Our findings were shocking. Only 2.8% of articles published in ‘top-tier’ journals addressed these grand challenges. Indeed, if we understood the world only through the eyes of major management journals, and particularly the U.S.-based ones, climate change wouldn’t exist. Nor would wealth inequality, racism or gender discrimination. Labour exploitation in business supply chains magically disappears likewise. Journals articles have somehow been rendered silent on global problems that everyone else cannot stop talking about.

So, what on earth is going on?

We first eliminated obvious explanations for the glaring lacuna. For example, it could be argued that despite the worthy sentiments expressed in conference themes, in reality, management academics do not actually care about these issues. That didn’t seem plausible, however, given the exponential growth of management plenaries, workshops, and conferences dedicated to the bleak underbelly of capitalism today. It might also be claimed that top management journals aren’t replete with articles on social, economic, and environmental challenges, precisely because they are management journals and thus publish articles about management. We didn’t find this explanation overly convincing either. If it is not the case that advocates like AoM conference organizers are simply paying lip service to worthy ideas, and we take their calls to action at face value, then surely we would expect to find a growth in the number of articles concerning the major problems facing humanity.

We think the situation probably reflects one or both (a) the number of such papers written (or not written) for elite journals; that is, supply of manuscripts and (b) the number of papers accepted (or rejected) by such journals; that is, demand for manuscripts. On the supply side are institutional forces under which academics write papers in business schools. We argue that important disincentives are present here. For example, the quality metrics and rankings that now dominate this milieu clearly shape choices regarding what academics publish, given that only a small number of journals are considered ‘excellent.’ Because these metrics are linked to professional rewards (i.e., tenure, promotion, and recognition) they exert an impressive influence on individual and/or team research agendas. Key here is the idea of safe papers on safe topics: namely, areas of inquiry that fit into an already established domain of legitimate scholarship (e.g., institutional theory, resource-based theory of the firm, etc.) and have the best chance of being published in high-ranking journals. It is not difficult to imagine the cost-benefit calculation that scholars make when considering what manuscripts they will submit. This comes at a price of academic research interests, since the range of admissible topics, values, and concerns is dramatically diminished in the process.

But why are top-tier journals so unreceptive to critical papers in the first place? This brings us to the demand side of the problem, where high-ranking outlets seem more likely to reject papers that critically analyse the Anthropocene, financial markets, the corporation and so on. This cannot simply be because all of these papers are inferior on accepted quality criteria. Rather, we believe that an institutionalized bias implicitly informs editorial decisions in this respect, once again influenced by a journal’s standing in the latest rankings. Critical manuscripts are rejected for being too political (because the journal is not considered an appropriate forum to air such ‘controversies’), too subjective (since critical papers are frequently deemed emotive and partisan) or a bad fit (even if a critical manuscript can skilfully navigate the other assessment hurdles, editors can always use the justification that the paper deviates too far from the stated mission of the journal). There are a number of reasons why editors may do this. For instance, they are under pressure to boost their journal’s impact factor, which may lead to coercive citation and thus reinforce the norm concerning papers that ‘fit’ (i.e., closely shadowing papers previously published) and those that do not.

These supply and demand explanations merge into a mutually reinforcing relationship, which we call the business school/elite journal gridlock. It works like this. Business schools slavishly follow journal rankings, which dramatically narrows the topics scholars are willing to write about. And journals become caught in an escalation of commitment concerning their ranking position, unwilling to deviate from the established template, which unfortunately has become extremely conservative, if not ignorant of the ecological and social crises besieging society today.

What is to be done? We need to somehow break this business school/elite journal gridlock. That may be easier said than done, of course. But a starting point could be business schools’ questioning the assumption that a leading journal publication is the sole marker of academic worth. The singular focus on journal rankings has created a situation in which the means have become ends in themselves. Academic careers have become inward looking as a result, worshipping the deity of elite journals above anything else. Consequently, the overall purpose of business school education and the values that guide its research have receded into the background – and the tail (publishing in top journals, growth of student numbers, league table rankings, etc.) is now wagging the dog.

Another step forward may be some kind of moratorium on journal rankings/metrics – say for three years – to provide space for resetting our research agendas. This would require collective coordination across a number of community stakeholders. A difficult task no doubt, but not impossible to achieve.

Ultimately, this lack of engagement by top management journals represents a missed opportunity. Some of the brightest minds in the academy could be tackling major societal problems, as is occurring in other domains of scholarship. Instead they are hamstrung by an institutional gridlock that functions as if nothing is wrong.

Bill Harley is Professor at the University of Melbourne. Peter Fleming is Professor at University of Technology Sydney.

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