Response To “Are Management Scholars the Best Scholars in the History of the World?”

by Gautam Ahuja

I thank Myles for providing a very nice starting point for an interesting debate here. Let me present a different perspective. First, a novel theoretical contribution does not imply a complete new theory. Indeed most published papers with a theoretical contribution provide only a nuance or conditioning of a prior idea and empirical support provides deepening for our understanding of the relationship between the involved variables. Second, requiring a novel theoretical contribution does not imply that every idea is subjected to just one test. Indeed, a quasi requirement of any paper is to relate the paper to the prior literature. Hence, we require every subsequent paper to build on or nuance the understanding so far any empirical test must also account for the prior hypotheses and understanding. Hence, in effect there are many “tests” of an argument and its derivatives which together lead to a nuanced and complex portrait of the relationship between the studied variables.

A natural question that arises is why do management journals have a theoretical contribution requirement. I present two sets of arguments drawing from both content and process reasons. I draw liberally from my article “Demystifying Organization Science” (Organization Science 33 (5), 2022) and I refer the interested reader to it. As I noted there “this historic importance of theory is based upon the very nature of organizations as complex in the Simonian sense of consisting of many, interdependent parts. Organizations are entities composed of individuals and groups and hence the behavior of organizations can be extraordinarily complicated. Making and testing predictions about the behavior of organizations or their subcomponents (groups and individuals) is correspondingly extremely hard. In developing theoretical abstractions aka models of organizational behavior maintained premises underlying the model can differ sharply very legitimately along at least three axes (and likely several more), a) the motivations driving human and group behavior, b) the nature of rationality brought into play, and c) how individual motivations and rationality are aggregated into decisions by groups or larger collectives. Overlaying these three sources of variation is the problem of actor inconsistency. ….. These multiple features of behavior in and of organizations is manifested in many of the features we see in organization theory – the absence of a single, unifying or overarching paradigm, the difficulty of causal empirical testing and validation or falsification, the relative rarity of dominant main effects and the preponderance of contingent (interactive) and mediated effects. Very importantly, in part as a consequence of these features the importance of theoretical novelty in organizational scholarship rises. When the phenomenon under study is extremely complex, characterized by multiple interactions and there appears to be a relative paucity of strong main effects uncovering novel interactions (which can all serve as theoretical contributions) is in itself important. In a celebrated article in this very journal, Huber (1991) once defined learning as: An entity learns if, through its processing of information, the range of its potential behaviors is changed. In other words, identifying plausible alternatives that expands the decision-makers choice set is itself important and a contribution. This is true a fortiori for phenomena that are characterized by high levels of interactive effects. Since contingences matter a lot and dominant main effects are rare expanding our knowledge of the variety of contingencies or interactions at work is important in itself. By expanding our repertoire of theoretical interactions we open the door to further learning.”

There are off course multiple other arguments as well for including a theoretical contribution as a requirement. Papers motivated with novel developed theory and then tested empirically impose higher costs and potentially offer higher returns. Further, from a process perspective there remain at least two further arguments for the theoretical requirement focus, selectivity and division of labor across journals.

a. Selectivity. The top journals have higher rejection rates and hence much higher submission rates than they can handle. Hence, papers published in these journals need to be “above and beyond” and need a distinguishing characteristic. Theoretical novelty can be such a distinguishing characteristic. Indeed, not just on our field but even in fields like economics the empirical papers published in the top journals usually have a theoretical model (usually a fairly sophisticated formal model). In principle and practice empirical novelty of a high order can also provide such a distinguishing characteristic. Indeed, the top economics journals do publish purely empirical pieces as well. There is however commonly a something special about those papers. They often introduce novel econometric techniques or built-for-purpose statistical estimators for that paper that have broad applicability or address fundamental problems of public policy with wide ranging implications for social welfare. Conceptually such empirical contributions are are also possible in our field but they are very rare. Indeed in my experience which at this stage spans examination of papers in the thousands we rarely have submissions that develop new-to-the-world econometric techniques or estimators that are purpose-built for the submitted paper and also novel to the world signifying a significant empirical contribution.

b. Journal identity and division of labor: Each of the top journals tries to differentiate itself from other journals. This builds journal identity and lets its readers and reviewers and submitters know what it stands for. This direction is helpful because journals are not immune to the law that you cant be great at everything. Reviewers, authors, editors, as they understand the identity of a journal try to push it to excel in some domain. Focus on the domain permits a steady improvement in that chosen direction. So an ASQ paper while ensuring strong econometrics will still try to push abstraction and theory. Since the task of getting published in a top journal is hard, this forces authors to excel and push themselves to improvement on that dimension. Since the top journals differ somewhat from each other in their domains of excellence this push allows science in the field as a whole to move forward, potentially faster. There is a specific competence required to foster development in each of theory, empirics, data etc. A journal needs to develop this collective distinctive competence in its reviewers and editors to ensure a paper-quality enhancing review process. Changing or adding competencies is not easy. Consider replication. SMJ encourages replication but most of the other top journals do not. In part this is simply because what seems like a simple addition to the roster of acceptable papers has a whole back-end to it. Most importantly you need to develop key criteria in what is going to be a worthwhile replication and how do you distinguish between publishable replications and not publishable replications. Etc. Is it by the quality of the replication, the importance of the targeted paper, the validation or invalidation of the original paper’s results, or some other criteria? How do you train and guide your editors and reviewers to make these distinctions?. There are also likely to be many questions that will arise through individual submission and the questions they raise. I am not making the case that journals should not do replications; just highlighting that it is a very significant decision and commitment of resources for any given journal. The editors at SMJ should be celebrated for their willingness and thoughtful implementation of this practice – as an editor I recognize that it could not have been easy and as a reviewer for them for a replication I very much appreciated the guidance they provided. For journals like ASQ and OS and AMJ that have historically pushed theory its hard to make this change easily. Management Science has in our field been methodologically oriented and hence moving to a heavier empirical demand may be relatively easier for the, Indeed, the Academy journals have responded to these identity challenges by launching a new journal – Academy of Management Discoveries.

One comment on “Response To “Are Management Scholars the Best Scholars in the History of the World?”

  1. Gautam, thank you for articulating a difference of opinion with respect to why it is counterproductive for our premiere journals to *require* novel theoretical contributions of all papers. You make four points – please let me comment on each briefly and refer an interested reader to my article “Causal Identification through a Cumulative Body of Research in the Study of Strategy and Organizations, ” Journal of Management, 46(7) for greater detail.

    1. Novel theory is a way to build cumulative knowledge. I agree. However, (a) it is not the only way to do so; for this reason I think our premier journals should be open to more than this approach. (b) Not all novel theory builds cumulative knowledge.

    2. We study complex phenomena. I agree. However, many consider this an important motivation to re-examine existing findings and hone in on better tests for hypothesized causal mechanisms. Again, I would agree, as you argue, that novel theory can be a path forward. However, it is not the only path forward and potentially not always the most effective path forward.

    3. Economic journals only publish papers that do not advance novel theory if they “introduce novel econometric techniques or built-for-purpose statistical estimators for that paper that have broad applicability.” I asked my economist friends to weigh in on this one. They disagree with your statement and pointed me to many counter examples. (They agree that such papers deal with fundamental and important questions – but management research can do that too.)

    4. We have a history of this approach, so change is difficult. I agree that change will be difficult – this is a motivation for my original post. However, our journals have not always had this focus – so change is certainly possible. In fact, AMJ formally required that all papers make “strong theoretical contributions” first in the June 1999 issue. I encourage an interested reader to look at the plurality of approaches that AMJ invited in the 1970’s.

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