Are Management Scholars the Best Scholars in the History of the World?

by Myles Shaver

I ask this question because the requirement or norm of many of our high-quality journals that all papers must advance a novel theoretical contribution implies the answer is yes. This requirement or norm means the first test of a theory (in the case of an empirical paper that advances theory) or simply stating a hypothesis (in the case of a theory or conceptual paper) provides the definitive conclusion – an accomplishment that can only be achieved by the best scholars in the history of the world! 

Unfortunately, such hubris limits the influence our research has in practice. To see why, consider this. We often come across findings from health-related research studies that make us question whether a body of research supports the findings, or whether the findings are spurious or non-representative. We are sophisticated and appropriately skeptical of what any one research study means when consuming health research.  

I suspect that managers and other potential consumers of our research are equally sophisticated and skeptical when evaluating our research conclusions. To convince and engage this audience, we need to build a cumulative body of knowledge. One where we revisit findings with respect to important questions. One where we are motivated to advance novel tests of established ideas in order to be clearer about our causal claims. One where we are willing to reject theories – not just advance theoretical contingencies or boundary conditions if empirical results do not hold. 

I was struck by this point when watching the PBS Frontline documentary on vaccines, which documented the process through which scholars built a cumulative body of evidence on vaccine safety. Imagine the reviews scholars who advanced the evidence beyond the initial research would have received from our journals. “The hypothesis that vaccines do not have large systematic side-effects is well established in the literature. As a result, the reviewers and I see little theoretical novelty in your study….” 

We study organizations with vast societal impact. Our scholarship thus has the potential to have a significant impact on society. If we want our scholarship to actually realize such influence, our premiere journals should incent building a cumulative and robust body of knowledge, and forgo acting as if we are the best scholars in the history of the world.