Why Don’t Business Schools Publish More Impactful Research?

Business schools publish their research in journals or books which are often paywalled, or deal with abstract-sounding subjects, and therefore struggle to gain traction within the news, social media or blogs. Their academic citations score lower than the “hot button” areas like cli mate, health or the more austere but exciting parts of high energy physics. The overall volume of research outputs for business schools is also lower and more niche, and less multi- or interdisciplinary than a large (or even medium-sized) multi-faculty academic institution.  

This is the fourth of seven posts excerpting and adapting the SAGE Business white paper “Measuring Societal Impact in Business & Management Research: From Challenges to Change.” The white paper includes a core section, written by Usha Haley and Andrew Jack, and complementary essays penned by Ben McLeish and Mike Taylor of Altmetric / Digital Science, Sir Cary L. Cooper at the Alliance Manchester Business School, Renate E. Meyer, WU Vienna / Copenhagen Business School Maura L. Scott, Florida State University.

And yet the important work that business schools do needs to be evaluated and quantified on equal terms with the juggernauts of academia. So, we have run some numbers on the collective research outputs of 50 business schools to compare them with the papers in related business and management categories from generalist or multidisciplinary universities. (Our organization. Altmetric, is part of the Digital Science portfolio of companies that tracks and analyzes the online activity around scholarly research outputs. )

We looked at publication volume and resulting academic citations, mentions within certain online platforms, such as news and blogs, social media and Wikipedia, and we looked at how mean citations behave within particular research categories such as banking, marketing or finance between specialized institutions and generalist ones. The results present a mixed picture, but with some takeaways for business schools, as well as some clear wins for the more focused institutions.  

Firstly, let’s look at the raw numbers; as expected, smaller, specialized institutions have the lower footprint we would have expected. The first figure below compares the cumulative papers in the field of research category of “economics” per year across the world, with generalist institutions publishing about one third more than the business schools. Note that the data have been categorized by ‘machine learning,’ so we can find a paper in economics even if it was published in a megajournal (which by definition does not have overriding categories itself), or was published in the “wrong” journal (i.e., one where the main subjects would not represent the categories of the article). So this graph is not reliant on publications making an appearance in the “correct” journal – meaning our data have a better chance of being representative of the pool of items that are actually in the area of economics, rather than simply items solely from journals that self-identify as “economics,” which would accidentally exclude items from unexpected sources. 

Line graph of number of publication measured on yearly basis showing gradual increase until 2021 gradually rising until decline in 2022. Specialist schools follow trend but are 10,000 unites below other institutions
Number of papers in Economics, generalist institutions versus business schools.

The general trend is similar between these two pools of economics publications. The volume generally climbs, but the parallel remains roughly equal across the years. We repeated this with publications in “business and commerce” items as well, in the next figure: 

Line graph of number of publication measured on yearly basis showing gradual increase until 2021 gradually rising until decline in 2022. Specialist schools follow trend but are 10,000 unites below other institutions until ti9ghtening starting in 2021
Business and commerce publications in specialist institutions versus generalist institutions

The gap in outputs is notably smaller here and output trends are almost identical again – but with specialist institutions on the lower end of the spectrum. Interesting, but perhaps expected – from a sheer volume perspective, the 2020 pandemic had no noticeable effect, either positive or negative, on the volume of economics or business themed publications.  

The story is not so one-dimensional if we look first at mean citations to these two pools of items, and then at the way online attention aggregates around publications. The next two graphs present mean “economics” and “business and commerce” papers citations: 

Mean citations for economics papers and business and commerce papers – generalist versus specialist institutions

For citations (mean or otherwise), a general downward trend as we approach the present is of course expected since citations take years to accrue, and new items will simply not have many (or any) citations to show for a good while – but interestingly, business schools are consistently outperforming generalist institutions even while general institutions publish more papers every year in this area. That the gap should be so much larger, and the roles reversed, for economics might be down to the fact that economics is likely the subject you’d find taught equally within business schools and in pure academic institutions – and the most impactful and revered researchers are publishing in these institutions rather than business schools. Indeed, huge outliers like Daniel Kahneman, who can claim 72,000 citations for his economics work alone, might be tipping the scales in favor of the generalist institutions. Kahneman’s dominant affiliation is Princeton University, not a business school, and in 2021 alone, a single one of his economics articles was raking in 2,300 citations that year. To a lesser extent, Paul Krugman, another name known in lay circles as much as in business and economics ones, claims over 362 citations from a single article in 2021 – and has the affiliation of City University of New York – another win for the generalist institutions. 

But what of social metrics? It’s here that we see major diversions in patterns. 2020-21, the pandemic years, saw a massive spike in news stories that linked to economics papers or business papers (to say nothing of the explosion of attention around medical papers of course.) But not if you’re publishing from a business school: 

Mean news mentions of research from economics or business and commerce between either specialist or non-specialist institutions

Exactly the same pattern is seen if one looks at mean mentions within the blogosphere for the same period: 

Mean blog mentions of either “economics” papers or “business and commerce” papers, specialist institutions vs generalist institutions

The apparent immunity to viral attention during major events should be, if not cause for alarm, then certainly a cause for further examination and explanation by the business school community.  

We are left with some preliminary further questions: Why, based on the above, have business schools not been publishing more impactful research? Are the most prominent, cited, and viral voices that publish in areas of business and economics employed outside of business schools? What other factors could be contributing here?  

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

“How Might Societal Impact be Recognized within an FT Top 50 Journal?” | Renate E. Meyer

“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

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Ben McLeish and Mike Taylor

Ben McLeish (pictured) is the product sales team lead for Europe, the Middle east and Asia for Altmetric. Mike Taylor is head of data insights for Altmetric. Altmetric is part of the Digital Science portfolio of companies that tracks and analyzes the online activity around scholarly research outputs.

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