Academic journals are the fora where scholars present, dispute, validate or discard scientific knowledge. It is my strong belief that scientifically rigorous research is – and has to remain – academia’s core currency and that we cannot relax the criteria of what counts as scientific insight without undermining science’s credibility and the very foundation of our expertise. Is this in opposition to the demand that research ought to be societally impactful? Certainly not, but it sets clear limits to what academic journals and their editors can do.
Societal impact refers to the lasting effects that our research has on the achievement of societal goals, such as equality, sustainability, or less poverty. Impact is not equal to sitting on advisory boards, counseling politicians, or being present in the media. These may be means to bring our insights closer to decision-makers and raise the potential of being impactful, but they are not impact themselves. Why am I emphasizing this? First, with regard to recognizing and measuring impact, we are replacing citation counting with counting exactly such roles or mentions and this warrants caution. Second, we have a pro-impact bias and assume impact is per se beneficial. However, research may also have negative or undesirable societal impact, and we must not lose sight of counterproductive effects.
What can journal editors do to better recognize societal impact? We can encourage, develop, disseminate, and acknowledge research that has the potential to unfold positive impact.
Make impact count in the entire research project
Top-tier academic journals can and should encourage researchers to have the societal impact their research may have in mind throughout the entire research process and not only after completion. In addition to impact awareness, this will have positive ethical implications more generally. It is essential that we do not merely emphasize impact in the ‘aims’ section on journal websites, but actually implement it in editorial decisions, and ask our reviewers to comment on potential societal impact in addition to scientific rigor and conceptual contribution. Obviously, a formulaic “societal implications” section at the end of an article will not do the trick. Journals can also steer towards societal impact with special issues, recognize and showcase articles, either through editors’ choices, journal awards, but also by supporting broader initiatives like Responsible Research for Business and Management or The HIBAR Research Alliance.
Allow journal articles to be only one format among many
Journals need to professionalize their dissemination efforts. Top-quality journals with rigorous review processes are the prerequisite infrastructure for solid academic knowledge, and it is up to peers to assess academic quality. However, publishing good work in our journals is not enough. It is also our obligation to facilitate that this work reaches audiences beyond academia. Messages need to be customized and one article can obviously not serve all audiences. Here we need to learn and improve. Journals currently experiment with novel formats within or outside their pages to publish insights faster than the standard review process allows and collaborate with practitioner-oriented outlets to translate insights for non-specialists.
This sounds simple, but there are several hurdles: It is yet to be seen if we actually reach other audiences and if they join the conversation; the incentive system at universities where societal impact has made it into missions statements, but not yet into tenure procedures; copyright issues together with our concerns with self-plagiarism and the request for novelty – what if core insights have already been published in a blog?; and, finally, the competition and short-termism among journals driven by the journal impact factor index and other rankings. Instead, journals need to team up and collaborate with long view thinking in mind.
Professionalize documentation of impact activities
Societal impact, especially in the social sciences, is extremely difficult to pin down. It unfolds in a non-linear way and causality can hardly ever be attributed to a specific publication. It often materializes long after the research. Societal impact is a collective achievement (researchers, lecturers, advisors, etc. contribute) and often requires the researchers to stay in the background. Decision-makers get inspired, but do not mention their sources unless they need them for legitimation purposes. Hence, focusing on individual publications or researchers necessarily falls short. To summarize, when assessing societal impact, we are faced with a non-linearity, a temporality and a visibility (or better: vanity) challenge.
For journal editors, knowing the societal impact of the research they publish would be invaluable feedback. But even assessing the efforts undertaken requires documenting a variety of activities that editors have little intel on and authors and universities rarely systematically collect. Collectively (and journal editors are only one party in this), we need to agree on what is to count and how to document it, in the same way as we have learned to document data and analytical steps, and next institutionalize practices for impact assessment akin to the peer review process that assesses scientific quality. And most importantly, we need to make sure we remain aware that what all these activities do is increase the potential of societal impact. If we mistake the proxy for the thing itself, we turn means into ends and eventually incentivize appearance rather than impact.
From a journal editor’s perspective, top journals play a central role in recognizing societal impact of research. It is in their hands to ensure that scientific advancement and societal impact remain scholarly objectives that can be pursued without a trade-off. In all genuine modesty, a societal impact agenda will not be possible without us.
Posted and Upcoming Articles in This Series
“A Quick Examination of Existing Academic Impact Metrics and Concerns in Business Education” | Usha Haley and Andrew Jack
“A Decades Long Journey of Marketing and Public Policy Research to Support the Greater Good” | Maura L. Scott
“Why Don’t Business Schools Publish More Impactful Research?” | Ben McLeish and Mike Taylor
“Some Opportunities for Future Business & Management Research: Employee Health and Well-Being” | Sir Cary L. Cooper
“Efforts to Turn the Tide” | Usha Haley and Andrew Jack
“Medium And Short-term Recommendations to Move Forward” | Usha Haley and Andrew Jack