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the culture of productivity vs. a culture of ideas

David Courpasson is finishing his term as the editor of Organization Studies, the official publication of the European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS). As a parting gift, he wrote an essay about what he feels is right and wrong (okay, mostly wrong) about the current state of organizational scholarship. The essay is provocative and a bit pessimistic, although not unfairly so.  One of the major problems plaguing our field, Courpasson believes, is the development of a culture of productivity in social science, which seems to have most severely infected organizational and management research. In this culture of productivity, scholarship is not evaluated based on relevance or the quality of ideas but rather on the sheer volume of research that a scholar can produce. Professors are compelled to write lots of journal articles, and they push them out quickly in order to boost the length, but not necessarily the quality, of their CVs.  Although he doesn’t mention it, this culture of productivity seems to have numerous institutional sources, including the practice of many departments that determine merit raises and tenure cases by “number counting” (i.e., deciding that someone deserves tenure based on the number of “A journal publications” the person has produced).

The consequences of this culture of productivity is to increase the sheer volume of publications but at the sacrifice of social relevance.  The culture also has negative effects on the review and editing processes. Reviewers are worn out, editors are overwhelmed with new submissions, and there are simply too many journal articles to read and process. Here is an excerpt from Courpasson’s article:

[O]ur current system of scientific manufacturing creates more papers to review, with less committed and less timely reviewers, with a lower density of challenging ideas, as well as of ideas that are less significant for ‘the world’; in other words, for other worlds than the closest colleagues and networks. The culture of ideas is therefore vanishing: due to publishing pressures, people feel more and more pushed to submit any paper because rejection is not necessarily harmful: a new dynamic is created where work is routinely submitted anyway, sometimes in a real hurry (that is to say, even when clearly unfinished, including incomplete lists of references or variety of colours in the text), overburdening journals and editors. Here individual arbitrations surely play a role: authors’ visibility can indeed be maximized by small improvements enabled by journals’ insightful reviews; at the same time, thanks to this principle of productivity, potential papers to submit by a single author are multiplied, often in a logic of replication and repetition that also leads to ‘deviant’ behaviours such as self-plagiarism. But that adds some items in a resume and that is important because items are counted. Again, this is a counterproductive game: because volume does not always match quality and innovation, editors are more and more inclined to focus on flaws to purposively (although not willingly) narrow down the number of papers under review and obviously, in this ‘negativist’ cycle, innovative papers can be sacrificed by the necessity of correlating the ‘quality’ of a journal and a high (desk) rejection rate.

This process of deterioration in the quality and increase in the magnitude of production also tends to ‘weaken’ the core supervision of editors who rely more and more on the supposedly increasing professionalism and willingness to serve of growing pools of reviewers. Here it is not only the loss of an ‘idea-based’ culture that I am lamenting, but the prevalence of a culture of individualistic achievements which is strengthened by absence of true fellowship and solidarity ties between scholars, less and less animated by the project of building a serious collective knowledge.

There are a lot of things going on here. I certainly agree with Courpasson that the massive flow of sloppy journal articles through the publication process is a problem.  How we evaluate them is also problematic. Too often, we assess papers based on this little thing we call “theoretical contribution”, without considering how interesting an idea might be outside of a very narrow subfield. Sometimes really silly ideas get pushed as theoretical breakthroughs.  More generally, Courpasson’s point seems to be that we’re too concerned, as a field, about measuring quality through productivity and volume and that this concern has led us astray from really debating ideas and focusing on ideas that influence the everyday lives of the subjects we study. He compares the work of people like Gouldner to what we do today. Gouldner had a fundamental interest in explaining how organizations shaped people’s existence and his work was motivated by figuring out how to make their lives better. Similarly, Selznick believed that organizational analysis ought to be examine how organizations helped solve (or prevented the resolution) of societal problems.  Much organizational scholarship today, by comparison, is fairly disconnected from those practical considerations.  He thinks, and perhaps others would disagree with him on this point, that the shift in emphasis results from the culture of productivity changing our motivations as scholars. Being an academic is no longer a calling but rather a vocation.

Written by brayden king

September 23, 2013 at 8:55 pm

6 Responses

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  1. ronaldhartz

    September 24, 2013 at 10:10 am

  2. Thank you for sharing this Brayden. I wonder if there aren’t two different things going on here. First, every discipline, as Courpasson says, is following this high output model and there have been similar critiques pointing to this as an explanation for the relatively conservative tendency in journal publication. As the story goes, academics play it safe when selecting and reporting research to get their number of publications up for tenure and promotion. Though this dynamic has been criticized for incentivizing incremental work, that this work is incremental does not necessarily make it socially irrelevant or unimaginative. And this is the second dynamic.

    Courpasson points to “‘performance’, ‘networks’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘technology’” as the top terms in Org Science over the past five years and laments that phrases like “‘power’, ‘work’, ‘community’, ‘solidarity’, ‘beliefs’, ‘culture’ or more simply ‘peopled’” are not more prevalent. Just looking at the first set of words, I would bet that the emphasis on performance is driven by the fact that organizational research is been bought up by B-Schools. “Networks, knowledge, and technology” are the fashions of the day. (Which is not to imply that they are unimportant or superfluous.) The way I read his essay, I think it is this topic distinction that troubles Courpasson. Surely, the dynamics of publish or perish help preserve fads of any kind, but would B-schools care about the role of organizations in generating social solidarity if it didn’t ultimately reduce to some prediction about performance? So, publish or perish keeps things conservative, but I think it may be the B-schools that sustain this topical focus.

    This is not a critique of either organization scholars or B-schools. The goal of B-schools is exactly to build a profession of managers whose job is to generate performance and body of knowledge to help them do it. And, organizational scholars are in a position to contribute to this project in very significant ways. But, on the whole, organizational scholarship has become dependent on business schools in that the majority of organizations scholars; as the source of articles, reviewers, and citations; come from B-schools. For example, if I had to guess why organizational research on social movements hasn’t had a bigger impact on organizations as a whole, I would say it’s because the community of scholars who can actually justify this research to their department, review manuscripts, and will cite the articles is comparatively small.

    I’ve been wondering about these issues for quite a while as a Ph.D. student in orgs looking to make contributions that advance this field and trying to understand my own prospects for finding a job. So, I am very interested in what people think about Courpasson’s essay. This is OrgTheory after all :)

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    Jason Radford

    September 24, 2013 at 1:25 pm

  3. “One of the major problems plaguing our field, Courpasson believes, is the development of a culture of productivity in social science, which seems to have most severely infected organizational and management research. In this culture of productivity, scholarship is not evaluated based on relevance or the quality of ideas but rather on the sheer volume of research that a scholar can produce. Professors are compelled to write lots of journal articles, and they push them out quickly in order to boost the length, but not necessarily the quality, of their CVs.”

    Could have been written about the contemporary sociology job market.

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    Yup

    September 24, 2013 at 6:31 pm

  4. in all of these arguments against journal publishing, I always hear “quality” – says who? the author of the article? perhaps we can allow peers to judge quality

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    anon

    September 25, 2013 at 9:26 pm

  5. […] the cul­ture of pro­duc­tivity vs. a cul­ture of ideas: David Cour­pas­son is finis­hing his term as the edi­tor of Orga­niza­tion Stu­dies, the offi­cial publi­ca­tion of the Euro­pean Group for Orga­niza­tio­nal Stu­dies (EGOS). — Tags: advice, food for thought, org­stu­dies, wp2013-09 — https://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/the-culture-of-productivity-vs-a-culture-of-ideas/ […]

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  6. In Europe, research evaluation has begun to be questioned. It is said that the next Research Assessment Exercise in the UK will also take the number of citations in account. However, citation metrics are also flawed… What better measure of “academic productivity” can we go for? Or should we measure academic productivity at all?

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