Thursday, 3 July 2014

Reviewing organization studies

I have recently been doing a lot of reviewing for academic journals which is an increasingly depressing experience. Almost every paper I review has an entirely mechanistic and soul-destroying approach. A literature review is conducted to establish the current state of knowledge. But there is no real engagement with that literature, it is just carefully presented to establish some synthetic deficiency. Then there is a dense section on theory and the claim of some wonderful theoretical advance. There is a cautious and careful statement of methodology, stressing its technical aspect. Then some findings and a crafted statement of contribution.
Occasionally, there is some glaring inadequacy in these ritualistic moves that, as a reviewer, one can point out. Far more often, there’s not really anything wrong with it … except that it’s awful and pointless and boring. Those might be considered good grounds to recommend rejection but, bizarrely, that is not so. Sometimes I say something like that in my reviews but, when I do, it is invariably discounted (for those who don’t know the process, normally journal editors send reviewers a copy of their decision letter* along with the comment of all reviewers, so one can see what weight has been put upon one’s comment). In any case, I rarely state it so baldly since I understand very well the reason why authors write their papers that way. It’s not even that these papers are ‘bad’. They are just dead.
The reason why academic research in organization studies has got this way are multiple, but they have led to a situation where each and every journal paper is supposed to make a theoretical advance (even though there have only been a handful of such advances in the field in the last fifty years, say; and few of these have come from journal papers) and to be empirically robust (even though almost all of them are based either on statistical analysis of variables that are meaningless, or present as ‘thick description’ a few quotes from some interviews). The possibility that academic research might disclose something interesting and hitherto little known or not known at all about how people live is not so much forgotten as derided.
As an author, submitting papers to journals, I see this all the time. When I started this job, reviewers’ comments were confined to a brief statement of criticisms and suggestions. Now, I receive whole essays as reviews demanding of a 10,000 word article more than a series of books could reasonably be expected to deliver. And if I re-write and re-submit the paper – and sometimes, now, I just say that I won’t do so given the absurdity of the demands – it is meant to be accompanied by a response to reviewers running to as many pages as the paper itself, and grovelingly thanking the reviewers for the damage they have forced me to do. I say damage because although reviewer comments are occasionally helpful, more often they require endless detours, bolsterings and circumlocutions which strip out any clarity of argument. This is very obvious when you read journal papers because you can almost always see the joins as authors struggle to accommodate reviewers' comments, and is one of the reasons for their unreadability. ‘Ah, that’s just the game’, my colleagues tell me. Well, yes, indeed it is, and if we play it then we end up with precisely the boring and forgettable papers that are published.
Because that, really, is the point. All of this is supposedly about quality. By being so ‘rigorous’ it will ensure that each paper is of great merit. I know people who become almost orgasmic with glee when they get an acceptance letter from a top journal. People who don’t work in this field won’t understand this and may not believe it, but it is true. It is ridiculous of course. Even within the narrow terms of  professionalised debate it is ridiculous. The average citation of a paper in the organization studies field is less than five. But here is something interesting – and it is not meant to be as self-aggrandizing as it sounds. In my career I have published many papers in what are now called ‘top journals’ which would probably not begin to meet the criteria that those journals now apply. Yet very many of them are highly cited (I will spare you my Google Scholar i10-index) whereas the papers being published through this routinized, professionalised  journal process we now have disappear without trace.
Almost everything that happens every day in every country in the world is bound up with organizations. It is exciting, important and vibrant. But the academic study of organizations is not just dead but deadening. Organization studies might very well be called organizational necrophilia**.

*These editorial letters are themselves masterpieces in mediocrity ('I want you to satisfy all the reviewers' comments' - no sense that an editor might make a judgment on their validity or, even, acknowledge their incompatability) and sanctimony (the dominant trope being a lordly injunction to authors to consider this ‘a high risk rewrite’).

**Post-script: Since first posting this it has been nagging at me that it connects with something else, which I now remember is an excellent post on Yiannis Gabriel's blog, entitled Are any academic journals still alive?

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