Collaborations between researchers and managers can produce insight and impact. But publication can be difficult. Top editors advise on the path to print.
Journal editors want to see important research published. After all, their goal is to accept articles that could be highly cited. And they increasingly recognize that involving practitioners in research yields both novel insights and practical impacts.
Nevertheless, such co-created research has a poor history of publication in top journals.
How can researchers working with practitioners improve their chances of publication?
At a professional development workshop at the 2017 Academy of Management meeting, four journal editors provided their advice on how to succeed with research that involves co-creation by academics and practitioners.
The editors were Peter Bamberger, incoming editor-in-chief of Academy of Management Discoveries (AMD), Tima Bansal, deputy editor of Academy of Management Journal (AMJ), Forrest Briscoe, associate editor of Administrative Science Quarterly (ASQ), and Martha Feldman, senior editor of Organization Science (OS).
These editors described the challenges and importance of collaborative work— and how to get it into a journal.
Collaboration with practitioners takes many forms
The AOM session officially addressed “action research,” a research methodology which involves practitioners as co-investigators and seeks to change a system by reflecting, theorizing and acting. Ideally, action researchresults in solutions for management practice and contributions to management theory. The journal editors also spoke about related methodologies such as engaged scholarship and insider-outsider research.
Sara Rynes (University of Iowa), the session moderator, described its focus as any research where “practitioners of various sorts are in some way intimately involved in the co-production of research.”
When it comes to publication, all such research faces similar challenges.
Publication is rare
The editors described publishing few articles that use action research or were co-created with practitioners. Briscoe described seeing one such paper over two years at ASQ. Bansal recalled only two “action research” papers being published by AMJ. “I see very few action research or engaged scholarship papers, and those that are submitted are not solidly executed,” Bansal explained. (Bamberger and Feldman didn’t provide specific numbers.)
Ideas about research are changing
Increasingly, researchers are arguing that scholarship and practice are often tightly intertwined, especially in qualitative research. Journals are slowly recognizing that connection.
Academic research should have impact, said Briscoe, pointing to Anita McGahan’s AOM presidential address as an articulation of this goal. “She was basically calling out for all of us to be more emboldened in trying to figure out how to make our work relevant to practice,” said Briscoe. “I’m a big believer in that.” He sees engaging practitioners as a way to help identify important questions and validate findings.
Academia is recognizing that research is not always a positivist enterprise, distant from the phenomenon studied, said Bansal. She has seen the transition firsthand. When she started her career 30 years ago, “AMJ said the first table in a publication had to be the correlation table. I was doing qualitative research and I thought, ‘Well I don’t know what that means actually,’ and trying to publish it was hard. And what I ended up doing is creating a very positivist model. I was forced to express my insights in boxes and arrows, as if I stood outside the phenomena and looked in. The research journals determined rigour through the same yardsticks as with quantitative research: objectivity, reliability and validity.
“We are moving into a new world that acknowledges that researchers who are involved in the research site influence the research site. Even when all we do is ask a question of a practitioner, we affect them. Not all authors hold this paradigm, not all authors should, but we as journal editors need to know how to manage the review process for authors that do.”
Journals’ progress is slow, said Briscoe. Editors increasingly recognize the importance of relevance and impact, but “the way the technology of our journals works right now, we’re still in a kind of gap phase.”
Co-creating research with managers creates value
Practitioner collaboration can result in relevant research questions, said the editors. Practitioners are better attuned to emerging issues. “As academics, our field of vision is relatively narrow,” said Bamberger. “I think [an issue] really has to slam us in the face, we’ve got to read a dozen articles in the New York Times before we’re aware of something that’s worthwhile studying.”
Bamberger offered an example of a recent AMD article. One of the authors was a practitioner turned academic. Bamberger used the paper as an example of unique insights and access, in this case a video ethnography, that a practitioner who is “on the inside” can facilitate.
How to get your research published
The editors offered two main tips for publishing work that involves managers as collaborators. They encouraged researchers to (1) build on academics’ and practitioners’ specific expertise and (2) be transparent and reflexive about their engagement.
1. Use academics’ and practitioners’ specific skills
Academics and practitioners have very different expertise. A strong article results from each party taking leadership at different stages of the process, from conducting research, to writing the article, to navigating review.
Practitioners are valuable in developing research questions and making sense of data, said the editors. “The opportunity for [practitioner] engagement is huge earlier on in the lifecycle of a project,” said Briscoe. It’s “hugely generative” to consider “the gap between what the perceived wisdom is in the literature and what practitioners are telling you is actually going on.” Feldman concurred: “Practitioners as collaborators can bring many more years of experience to the project than researchers could possibly do on their own even if the research is multi year ethnography.”
Each party can offer a useful brake on the other’s perceptions. Practitioners can often “be enamored with their own experience,” Feldman warned, making it difficult to see generalizable insights. And academics can be reluctant to recognize findings that diverge from theory, said Bamberger. Practitioners “often recognize the sort of inconvenient truths about the data that we prefer to ignore,” he said.
Researchers have needed expertise in shaping methods and integrating theory. “As things get into a journal like ASQ in the review process, [there’s a] heavy emphasis on theory contribution and methodological rigour,” Briscoe said. “To get over those hurdles really kind of involves being deeply embedded in the academic community of practice.”
Researchers should also take the lead in writing, to meet journals’ expectations. “Publishing is an act of translation,” said Feldman. “It seems as though we all speak the same language, or at least we write in English, but there’s actually an academic language and many different practitioner languages. Publishing happens in the academic language.”
2. Be reflexive and transparent
Researchers should be clear about their role and how they affected the research subject, says Bansal. “If you recognize yourself as an insider and put yourself into the method section and you say who you are, what you did, how you deliberately or accidently intervened, and you’re authentic and transparent, that will be huge in buying the trust of the reviewers.”
Workshop speaker Jason Jay, who published an action research article in AMJ, described how he sought to be transparent. Each time he shared his data with organizational contacts, he noticed that he changed their thinking. He chose to record his feedback meetings with the organization, and systematically map how these meetings changed the organization’s course. Ultimately, he made author perspective a key concept in his theoretical framework. He successfully redefined rigor as not objectivity but rather transparency and systematic documentation of the author’s influence.
Publishing co-created research is a work in progress
Conducting research with practitioners is hard. Getting it published is even harder. And yet, we are beginning to see interest from the top journals in our field to publish action research that is done well. The editors in this session offered useful advice on how to navigate the challenging process of publishing action research.
At the same time, researchers who have undertaken this effort can likely attest to falling into several traps where traditional metrics of rigor, such as researcher objectivity and distance from the phenomenon, would automatically categorize action research as lacking rigor. In our next installment, we will unpack these issues from the researcher’s perspective, offering tips from those who have successfully published action research in top journals.
Find out more
Bridging research and practice is core to the NBS mission.
Explore our recent resources for researchers interested in collaborating with practitioners.
And, join us as a contributor to the resources we are developing. Please share your interest by emailing Garima Sharma.
NBS’s Co-Creation Initiative
NBS seeks to help researchers navigate the path of co-creation with practitioners: integrating academic and practitioner knowledge for unique insights. Review our many existing resources and subscribe to our academic newsletter for new co-creation guidance.
We also hope you’ll contribute your own insights. Please share your interest by emailing Garima Sharma.