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The changing nature of research evaluation in UK higher education is creating perverse and damaging consequences. UK higher education research is increasingly characterised by “McDonaldised” audit cultures that reduce complex issues of quality to quantified assessment measures. These processes reinforce an excessively narrow definition of what counts as “high-quality” research. Within the discipline of business and management in particular, the status of the journal in which the research appears is now viewed as the primary indicator of the article’s “quality”. This proxy measure erodes diversity, innovation, critical evaluation and creativity: the very lifeblood of academic endeavour. It is time to evaluate the impact of research evaluation in UK higher education.
In recent years the US culture of publish or perish has been implemented in UK higher education, but in more stringent and intensified ways. The US publish or perish culture focuses on junior teaching faculty, requiring them to develop a portfolio of publications before decisions are made about tenure (The UK no longer grants tenure to academics). Conducted approximately every six years, UK higher education research evaluations include all UK academics and cover the whole country (the US has no country-wide equivalent process). Aiming to assess the output of universities, faculties and departments, as well as individuals, UK assessments have intensified competition between universities, where resources and reputation are increasingly based on research evaluations.
The publish or perish culture is most stringently implemented in the UK discipline of business and management. Whereas in the US, and in certain other UK disciplines, publications such as monographs, edited collections and book chapters are still valued, this is no longer the case in UK business and management; peer-reviewed journal articles are now the defining feature of quality to the exclusion of other outputs. The resulting journal fetishism not only reduces complex matters of quality assessment to quantified and simplistic measures, but also has a homogenising effect on article content, while rendering the careers of business school academics ever more dependent on publishing in those journals that are deemed to “count”. As a result academics increasingly focus on publishing their research in “elite” journals and university/business school managers look to recruit those academic applicants who meet this profile. Yet there are many more academics targeting “top” journals than available spaces in these outlets.
The increasingly common focus of UK research auditors and university managers on the status of the journal as the measure of article quality is informed by highly controversial assumptions: that all articles published in the same journal can be evaluated as of equal merit and that the status of specific journals is self-evident and uncontested. Underlying these assumptions is an increasingly prevalent mechanistic view that academic research is rather like an assembly line, in which research papers can be standardised to a preset definition of quality. As a result, business school research auditors and university managers no longer believe they need to read articles to assess their quality. They can simply refer to various lists of journals that rank journal status. Many of these lists typically favour US-based journals. Take for example, the influential list by The Association of Business Schools which evaluates 825 journals. Most of the 93 defined as top quality are predominantly American in editorial profile, orientation and author location. Similarly, nearly all the 45 journals in the Financial Times full-time MBA list are US based.
Yet, US business and management journals tend to publish articles that, while technically proficient, are typically conservative and uncritical. They continue to privilege traditional perspectives and methods that have been extensively and successfully critiqued elsewhere. Often following a predefined formula and making minor contributions to very narrow discipline-specific debates, such articles frequently have little relevance outside academia. This produces a self-fulfilling dynamic, encouraging academics to submit “safe” articles in the hope of securing favourable reviews from US editors and editorial board members. The ensuing pressure to produce conservative articles that support prevailing US values militates against creativity, interdisciplinarity and critical analysis of business practice.
In my discipline of leadership studies, the impact of conservative US thinking is particularly evident. Research tends to be based on studies conducted by US researchers in US companies about US employees, informed by US perspectives and methods. It is often assumed that organisational success should be credited to the role of leaders and that little attention needs to be paid to contexts, conflicts, followers or dysfunctional leadership.
The recent popularity of “positive leadership” is a case in point. Despite being espoused by many leading US scholars, (excessively) positive ways of leading – what I have termed Prozac leadership – clearly contributed to the conditions leading to the 2008 global recession. Under a regime of excessive positivity, employees who dared to raise concerns about high levels of corporate risk and reckless lending were shouted down and bad news was buried until it was too late.
The 2008 financial crash is a good reason to encourage more diverse research and more questioning cultures within business schools. Critical and innovative teaching that is relevant and research-led is essential to challenge students to think more deeply about pressing leadership and management issues. It is time to question the disproportionate influence of US ideas on all business schools, to redefine the meaning of quality in academic research and for non-US scholarship to be more confident in its own distinctive contribution.
The author is professor of leadership and organisation at Lancaster University Management School.