Soapbox

October 16, 2013 11:03 am

Harvard Business Review should pay a price for its fees

Journal should be excluded from those that count towards FT MBA rankings, says Joshua Gans

One of the great features of the FT’s Global MBA and EMBA rankings is that they include an explicit research component. This is done in the belief that those who create the knowledge are likely to be those that best impart that knowledge. Thus, prospective MBA students should consider how close to the action they want to be.

The FT’s research component is based on publications by a business school’s teaching faculty in a list of 45 academic and practitioner journals (the so-called ‘FT 45’). It is no surprise that Harvard Business Review is on that list. It is perhaps the most widely read journal emanating from an academic institution. However, a recent change in its business practices should cause us to wonder if HBR should remain on that list.

While this has been brewing for four years, this summer, Harvard Business School Publishing (HBSP), which handles the publication of Harvard Business School’s teaching cases, decided to enforce a dormant clause in its contracts with academic institutions. Even though those institutions’ libraries had a subscription to HBR that allowed students and teaching faculty to access them, these articles were “not intended for use as assigned course material in academic institutions”. This does not only apply to articles copied into course packs as required readings. It applies to everything else, including links from class web pages or even mere suggestions given to students to deepen their understanding of certain areas. HBSP would now only permit institutions to do any of those common activities if they paid a fee for each article and for each student enrolled in the course (whether the student accessed the article or not).

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My dean at Rotman was clear to point out that our teaching faculty should assign HBR articles as we saw fit, but wanted us to be aware of the new cost. But to me there is a deeper principle: as academics, when we teach students ideas, we cite the original source of those ideas. In other words, we believe in acknowledgment for much the same reason that the FT believes students should understand where ideas come from. However, in an unprecedented move – to the best of my knowledge a course of action not pursued by any other scholarly publishers who are otherwise not known for their restraint in the exercise of market power – HBSP wants to treat articles with its teaching case business model and, thereby, tax acknowledgments that point to and credit knowledge creators.

But teaching cases are not research nor are they the dissemination of research. They are an innovative way of generating discussion and deepening learning and business schools worldwide have opted to pay for their inclusion in classrooms.

HBR is a journal. It has subscribers including the libraries of most institutions. It has advertisers. And it is designed to comment on business practice and disseminate the knowledge created by academics. It is not peer reviewed but emphasises editorial input in lieu of those costs. And for that reason, it was appropriate to be used by the FT as a measure of knowledge created by faculty.

But now it is not neutral. While teaching faculty stand above cost considerations in favour of pedagogy, we are not immune to them. A mere mention of an HBR article that some students may want to delve deeper into would cost the same as a case assigned as the basis for a three-hour class. Thus, the knowledge created by that journal will be less accessible for the students than knowledge elsewhere. How can it be, therefore, that the FT can consider HBR as a journal that connects students to knowledge creators? HBSP has relegated HBR to second-tier status and so should the FT.

What I suggest by the elimination of HBR from the FT 45 should not significantly have an impact on the FT’s ranking methodology. The methodology should be robust enough that the inclusion of one journal less does not matter. Unless, of course, one institution in particular is over-represented with its teaching faculty publishing in that journal. In which case, so be it.

Joshua Gans is professor and area co-ordinator of strategic management and the Jeffrey Skoll Chair in technical innovation and entrepreneurship at the Rotman School of Management. His latest book, Information Wants to be Shared, was published in 2012 by Harvard Business Review Press.

Harvard Business Review answers its critics: Das Narayandas, senior associate dean of Executive Education and Publishing and professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, has responded to Prof Gans’ criticisms. Many believe that information should be free he says, but ideas that achieve maximum impact come at a cost. Read the full article here.

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