by Jerry Davis
Is there an audience for academic research? While it may seem an obvious yes who is that audience? Of all the things I neglected to learn in graduate school, this one took the longest to address. Recognizing that someone might read, and better yet make a decision from my research, wasn’t on my radar. Scholars spend so much of their lives outlining, writing, revising, revising again, revising yet again…but who is the intended receiver of those hard-won insights?
Judging from much of what I see in webinars and paper development workshops, the audience is often Reviewer #2 — that grumpy curmudgeon whose goal in life is to prevent papers from seeing the light of day, blocking the paths to publication with off-base comments and demands for “contribution to theory.”
Alternatively, we might write with the intent to delight our colleagues with engaging stories and to confound their expectations. Management is the only field I know of where “That’s interesting!” is seen as a how-to guide for publication, not a cautionary tale of how science can lose its way.
One recent article estimated that a publication in an A business journal costs an average of $400,000, which seems like a lot just to pacify Reviewer #2 and amuse other academics.
This question of finding (or choosing) an audience is even more pressing when it comes to one’s dissertation. Scholars spend years on a dissertation, selecting a topic, defending a proposal, gathering, and analyzing data, writing up findings, defending the dissertation, sharing insights on the job market, and (optimistically) publishing one or two resulting papers. We live with our dissertation for a long, long time. Is the audience for this work just the four or five people on the dissertation committee who stand between the scholar and their credential? Or should we think beyond the audience in the front row?
A group of senior scholars centered at Wharton has been framing the question this way: How do I choose a dissertation topic that can make a strong scholarly contribution AND has the potential to shape practice for societal benefit? This is, of course, central to the mission of RRBM (Responsible Research in Business & Management): combining rigor and relevance. The answer hinges on the intended audience: who are they, and what do they need to know that your research can provide?
While a seemingly simple and obvious idea in my experience it is almost wholly absent from standard doctoral training. What if we thought of a dissertation as a project or (shudder) a product that is intended to meet some need in the world?
Phanish Puranam jokingly proposed the idea of a “dissertation model canvas,” and the idea stuck. A dissertation proposal might:
- Define an intended audience or audiences (business executives, policymakers, the public, academics interested in antitrust)
- State a clear value proposition for each intended audience – what benefit would they receive from the proposed research
- Speculate on the intended uses for the work
Perhaps the proposed topic is sparked by a gap in the literature, or a new and under-examined phenomenon — but without a clear audience who could receive value from the research, it might be worth re-thinking. Of course, the value could be “Fellow academics will enjoy reading this,” but that might not be as persuasive.
What do you think? How do you choose audiences for your work, particularly dissertations? And what would your “dissertation model canvas” include?