In 2013, TESLA CEO Elon Musk hit a sore spot among scholars with an offhand remark he made during an interview with Sal Khan of the Khan Academy. As he explained why he pursued entrepreneurship over scholarship, Musk described academic papers as “pretty useless.” He asked Khan, “How many PhD papers are actually used by someone, ever? Percentagewise, it’s not good.”
Musk is not alone in asking about the value of academic publications. Increasingly, government officials, business leaders, and even academics themselves are wondering, who reads academic research? And does that research actually improve business practice or address social challenges?
In large part, no, says Anne Tsui, adjunct distinguished professor of management and organization at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business in Indiana. “When business schools first began, we did a lot of good. We produced many theories explaining the development of industries, leadership, work design, supply chain issues,” says Tsui. “But in the 1980s and ’90s, counting journal publications became more important.”
Many business academics trace the problem back to two 1959 reports from the Ford and Carnegie foundations, each criticizing business schools for acting more like trade schools than serious academic institutions. In response, business schools poured resources into producing serious research tailored to the publication criteria of respected journals. That evolved into today’s system, where the more peer-reviewed articles faculty publish, the more they are rewarded—even if their articles are read by no one besides their colleagues. In the process, says Tsui, business and management research lost its original purpose: to solve actual business problems.
In an attempt to return business schools to that purpose, a group of academics, including Tsui, created the Responsible Research in Business & Management (RRBM) network. RRBM brings together deans, faculty, journal editors, and leaders from global accrediting bodies who want business research to do far more to influence management practice and improve society. Members believe that it will take all stakeholders, working in concert, to change the current system—and to make impact, not publication, the purpose of business research.