Snake Oil Salesmen of Management Studies

Please Help ZNet








Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org


The prime objective of management studies is to legitimize a single institution: management. For that the crypto-academic field of management studies has been made part of business schools that are linked to universities further enhancing the reputation of management studies. In his book recent “Management Studies in Crisis”, Dennis Tourish argues that management studies is plagued by fraud, deception and meaningless research. He is by no means the first to point this out. André Spicer, for example, says “Business is Bullshit” while Martin Parker claims that business schools should be shut down. Others say, business schools should be bulldozed.

Undeterred management studies and university apparatchiks march on pushing what is known as “impact factor fetishism”. These are rankings of the number of journal publications achieved by an any given field including management studies. Today, many journals remain top journals because they are viewed as publishing top work and they publish top work because they are considered to be top journals.

This vicious circle signifies the eternal madness of the system and the insanity in Foucault’s Age of Reason. Yet still worse, the system of publishing in management studies advantages incumbency and impedes competition operating a kind of Matthew Effect, who has more will be given, and he will also have abundance; but from him who has not, even that he has will be taken away.

The height of this sort of lunacy and absurdity may be found in the h-index. The focus on the h-index by university apparatchiks has led to a significant increase in the number of self-citations. It also fosters what is known as coercive citations which occur when journal editors pressure authors to cite papers published in their journal to boost the impact factor. 

Regularly, one experiences this more in so-called top journals than in those not ranked as top journals – not very surprisingly. Not so surprisingly, however, is the fact that out of 12,000 academics, a whopping 14.1% reported that they had experienced it. Rather obviously and to no-one’s surprise, business journals are more likely to coerce citations than other disciplines. 

One problem with this is the following. When the measure becomes the target, it ceases to be a good measure. People play the system just as, for example, Scottish police officers who have reported charging suspects even when they have insufficient evidence against them, in order to meet targets for arrests and convictions. Universities are no different. Beyond that, journal editors operate under the motto, if they reject a potentially good paper, no one will ever know. But if they publish a bad one, it is out for all to see.

Next to journals, the managerialist’s audit culture shapes research grant applications. The audit process compels more and more academics to write more and more grant applications in the pursuit of a diminishing pot of money. Since many, if not most, grant applications are unsuccessful, millions of hours and billons of dollars are wasted in composing applications that go nowhere. The heights of the madness is achieved when universities introduce special departments to assist academics in writing grant applications: All Power to the University Apparatchiks! 

For example, the EU’s flagship research and innovation program handed out €80 billion between 2014 and 2020. Just 4,315 won funding. A grant proposal’s chances of success is 14%. In other words, 86% failed, wasting time and money on a colossal scale. The EU is by no means the largest provider of research funding. The same wasting of hours not spent on research but on writing grant applications is replicated at state level just with much greater intensity.

But the systematic madness of university apparatchiks has other, even more pathological consequences, as shown in the case of London Imperial College’s Toxicology Professor Stefan Grimm who was driven to suicide. Perhaps KPIs can kill. Not surprisingly, 73% of academics said that, I find my job stressful; and it is often made more stressful by spiralist bosses who spiral into universities due to restructuring, for example and then spiral out of a university to the next job up the ladder with an even bigger desk and more perks.

Spiralists and Fraudulent Research

At Swansea University’s School of Management, their spiralist boss described some of the staff as a poison that is infecting and destroying the rest of the School of Management. Certain senior individuals, he went on, have transformed themselves into a cancer that must now be removed to allow the rest of the school to survive. This is a model of academic management that values staff as little more than recalcitrant cattle. It is almost as though management studies and university apparatchiks have consciously designed a system to maximize stress and fear. This is against the spirit of the university. University apparatchiks, in case you hadn’t noticed, are unconcerned with the spirit of the university.

The final episode in this exciting tale of wonders tells one about, not just the oppressive regime that seeks to project the impression of performance, but also about the pathology of the impact factor fetishism. In 2002, Sydney Brenner won the Nobel Prize. In 2014, Brenner reflected on the career of Fred Sander, a two-time Nobel winner for his work on proteins and DNA sequencing methods. Nobel Prize winner Brenner said, 

A Fred Sanger would not survive in today’s world of science. With continuous reporting and appraisals, some committee would note that he published little of importance between insulin in 1952 and his first paper on RNA sequencing in 1977. He would be labeled as unproductive, and his modest pension support would be denied.

Meanwhile, university apparatchiks sit on auditing committees, drive university-owned cars, receive comfortable salaries, and disable useless people like Fred Sanger because of his insufficient h-index. To get a sufficient h-index, KPIs and a raft of convoluted promotion criteria, struggling academics are increasingly forced to go to insane lengths to satisfy the idiots they work for. The relentless pressure put onto academics by university apparatchiks forces or entices academics to resort to plagiarism. This includes scientific misconduct which occurs in nearly 3% of all funded studies while one in twenty scientific papers contained errors or falsification.

In some cases, academic papers are retracted by journals according to retractionwatch.com. Rather uncommon is the case of the Dutch academic Diedrick Stapel who had fifty-eight papers retracted. At the European level, there is committee on Research Integrity and Ethics. Overall, very few (3%) of academics resort to drastic measures such as recycling existing knowledge to get into so-called top journals in the field of Management Studies. This is a kind of old-boys club that some journals have established so that a tightknit group of academics can get published. Much of this is akin to the all-white old boys club that runs the USA’s Academia of Motion Pictures dishing out Oscar awards to particular group.

Beyond all that, there lurks the age old problem that journals want to publish only positive results. The drive to produce publishable data encourages data torture where data are interrogated mercilessly until they confess they support a given hypothesis. To support all that, un-dead theories are dished up again and again, These are theories that are fervently believed but which are nevertheless unsound. 

It is quite possible that Management Studies academics might not have expected this but many others might have suspected that a detailed review published in 2018 summarized the evidence as showing that 25% to 50% of published articles in management have inconsistencies or errors. It might also indicate that potentially half all published articles, even including those in the so-called top journals, are coated with a thick layer of  inconsistencies. A sobering fact, perhaps.

From examining the contents of these top journals, the author of Management Studies in Crisis says, 88 papers in strategic management have credibility problems. A rather pretty use of the phrase credibility problems. Perhaps when management articles claim that something is too good to be true conceivably it just is not true at all. Meanwhile, in the UK it was found that 17.9% of academics admitted to using entirely invented data. In other words and rather incredibly, 18% of the professional staff just make up stuff.

Might all this indicate that there is a progressive erosion of scholarly integrity and that publishing, in this environment, is widely seen as just a game that academics play in the pursuit of career-building? Such thoughts are sheer blasphemy within the ivied halls of ivy covered universities. It smacks of the infamous Lance Armstrong defense, everyone else was doing it. Is the “game” to do what everyone else is doing? Is the game called cheating?

In such an environment, corruption and fraud have become an on-going and habitual process. They have become normalized. Furthermore, the infamous bad apple theory might not quite cut it either. Bad apples (mal-practicing individuals) can lead to bad barrels and ultimately, this may produce bad orchards. Particularly juicy is the case of James Hunton who had thirty-seven retractions while his specialty included ethics in accountancy. He even created fictitious organizations from where his data were allegedly obtained. The man is an expert on ethics in accountancy.

He wasn’t quite beaten by Ulrich Lichtenthaler’s sixteen retractions. Perhaps, though, he was beaten by Lichtenthaler’s subsequent appointment. Despite or perhaps because of his retractions, Lichtenthaler was hired by Germany’s International School of Management in May 2018 appointed as professor of business management. Right on! This is the way to become a professor of Management Studies.

Worse, if worse needed, some papers even continue to attract citations after their retraction – a common problem. To exasperate such problems, authors simply cut and paste references from other papers without actually reading the originals. For some reason, this is less prevalent in quantitative papers than in qualitative papers because of the continued dominance of positivist and qualitative methods in business and management journals. 

Business and management academics like to follow Aaron Levenstein’s dictum, Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. The very idea of business and management studies is to conceal what is vital while producing volumes of meaningless research just as Dennis Tourish says. Yet, there are five reasons for the dominance of quantitative-statistical articles:

  1. it is convenient;
  2. it is easy (cut-&-paste some survey, adjust it, run it through a stats program, etc.);
  3. there are huge rewards for data collection efforts;
  4. it often values novelty rather than replication; and finally and most importantly,
  5. it provides an illusion of scientific rigor, looks good, and assures useless publications.

Beyond that, a nice set of statistics attracts journals and publishers that have a cavalier attitude to ethical research standards. A rather common conviction among many simple-minded management academics is, I better publish more papers, I better. So [you = I] become a robot as one academic said. It is indeed reminiscent of the aforementioned Čapek’s robota. And just when you think it cannot get any worse, it still does in the world of Management Studies. Above and beyond all that, lurks the influence of corporate capitalism. Management studies is ready to serve its master.

Leave a comment