Today, Eric W.K. Tsang at the Jindal School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas offers a brief reflection on his article “That’s Interesting! A Flawed Article Has Influenced Generations of Management Researchers” appearing in the Journal of Management Inquiry. He asks if the pursuit of “interestingness” poisons, to an extent, management research.
My answer to the question “What’s wrong with writing and publishing interesting academic articles?” is that there is nothing wrong assuming that interestingness does not trump other more important attributes of an article. Unfortunately this assumption often does not hold in the management discipline given the current interestingness advocacy.
The advocacy originated from Murray Davis’s 1971 article “That’s interesting! Towards a phenomenology of sociology and a sociology of phenomenology” published in Philosophy of the Social Sciences. He promoted the idea that great theories have to be interesting in the sense that they provide counterintuitive arguments: “What seems to be X is in reality non-X,” or “What is accepted as X is actually non-X” (p. 313). His target audience was sociologists. Yet it turned out that management researchers have been most enthusiastic about adopting his idea, as indicated by the fact that among all the disciplines, management is the one that has provided the largest number of citations to his paper. Not only management authors but also journal editors have cited and embraced Davis’s idea. One of my colleagues included Davis’s paper as a required reading in his doctoral seminar.
As a seasoned management researcher, the advocacy caught me by surprise and motivated me to write my article. The problem of the advocacy is that most, if not all, management researchers consider themselves doing science, but interestingness (or counterintuitiveness or novelty) is not a virtue of a good scientific theory and thus has little value in science. There are two main objectives of scientific research, namely explaining and problem solving. Both objectives are only remotely related to interestingness. Regarding the objective of finding an explanation, whether a theory is interesting is simply irrelevant; what is relevant is whether the theory can provide a satisfactory explanation of a phenomenon. As to the other objective concerning problem solving, the current COVID-19 pandemic is a great example. Scientists in various countries are working day and night to deal with the epidemic and don’t have the luxury of thinking about the interestingness of their findings. In fact, in this kind of emergency, does anyone really care about interestingness?
Instead of helping the field of management research to progress, the obsession with interestingness has at least five detrimental consequences—promoting an improper way of doing science, encouraging post hoc hypothesis development, discouraging replication studies, ignoring the proper duties of a researcher, and undermining doctoral education. Although my target audience is management researchers, these consequences will occur in any social science discipline where a strong interestingness advocacy exists. I hope my article will help to highlight the downside of the advocacy and prevent it from spreading.