Publish or Perish for PhD Students in Business & Economics

Publish or perish has reached adulthood in business & economics and its up to the aspiring academic to decide how to navigate today's options, by Christopher Albert Sabel and Gilbert Kofi Adarkwah

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A Quick Introduction to the PhD in Business & Economics

While the natural sciences are seeking universal constants, social sciences are trying to find boundary conditions that help to explain human behavior under certain conditions. As aspiring social scientists within business and economics, we belong to the latter tribe, trying to explain the reasons behind individuals’ choices related to economic activity.

We observe economic actors directly through interactions or indirectly by relying on databases that have quantified information on these actors. For the most part, a computer, access to literature and basic software is all that we need. Consequently, our training to become social scientists does not need extensive funding for expensive equipment. Therefore, most of us generally do not have to chase funding to be able to conduct research in relation to our PhD dissertation. We can focus on learning how to conduct rigorous research and how to convey our findings to others.

After numerous conversations with colleagues from the natural sciences, engineering or humanities, the position of PhD scholars in business and economics seems to be a privileged one. Yet, it is not all rainbows and unicorns. We would like to share our experience about the extent to which publish or perish has become a concern for obtaining a PhD in business & economics, and highlight how this is relevant to continue to work within academia. 

Two Main Publishing Philosophies in Business & Economics

While business and economics has many sub-fields like other scientific disciplines, there seem to be two main philosophies when it comes to publishing activities of PhD Candidates: Either publish few papers in highly regarded journals, or publish as many papers as possible in any journal. Which stream a PhD Candidate pursues mostly depends on the prevailing model of their institution, department and supervisors. 

The approach to get as many publications as possible (which often means a single publication for most PhD Students) has been newsworthy lately across disciplines, with predatory publishers accepting any article against a fee[1] or reputable publishers being fooled by fake scholarly articles[2]. As a result, the drive to get as many articles as possible in any journal has subsided and often publishing in unknown, or open access journals, is discouraged due to quality concerns. Consequently, while it used to be good to have some publications under your belt after the PhD, the assumed quality of the journals is receiving a lot of scrutiny. 

While the necessity of peer-review and quality control is evident in general and even more so after recent scandals, the appropriate threshold of what high-quality scholarship is, remains open to interpretation. Therefore, most business and economics PhD programs aim to arm their PhD Students with competence to produce high quality scholarly output, which also matches certain externally visible criteria.

Rankings, Rankings, Rankings!

While journal impact factors and citation indices have been around for a while, there are many more indicators for “high quality” in business and economics. Journal rankings define what is acceptable, with the most noteworthy rankings being AJG2018 (formerly ABS2015 and ABS2010) and the FT50, a list of 50 academic journals that count towards the research evaluation for the Financial Times business school rankings (which rank university programs in business). Yet those are not the only rankings, as universities themselves are ranked by their scientific output in selected journals, by rankings such as the UT Dallas Research Ranking or the CWTS Leiden Ranking.

Rankings in general do not have be viewed negatively, as they (in principle) can help us to siphon through options in general and through academic literature options specifically. Those have become almost impossible to filter without any guidelines, due to the increased internationality of academia. However, economic interests often follow the interest of individuals. Consequently, academic publishing has become an industry in itself with publishers trying to attract readers and universities emitting bonuses for researchers who  publish in highly acknowledged journals. Everyone’s goals seem to align: Publish in ranked journals. 

Other disciplines seem to move away from judging scholarly contributions based on the quality of specific journals, such as through initiatives like DORA (The Declaration on Research Assessment). While it takes time for old habits to change, as a recent example of a DORA member’s hiring practices shows[3], business and economics at large do not seem to move into this direction. Journal rankings are more important than ever and future career prospects are defined by where you publish. Therefore, large numbers of PhD Students are trying to publish in well-ranked journals for job prospects post-PhD.

Pursuing an Academic Career?!

What a particular university department defines as high quality does vary. Although there does not seem to be any downside to developing rigorous work with high standards on data, methods, and theory, publishing in acknowledged and ranked outlets takes time. The time that PhD Candidates often do not have. Given that the process from submitting an article, to passing various reviews up to the actual acceptance of the article can take several years, PhD Candidates often do not have anything published by the time they graduate (or by the time their contract runs out). Often PhD Candidates enter the job market, in which universities are looking for demonstrated capability to publish in high-quality journals, only armed with working papers and manuscripts under review.  

This leaves business and economics PhD Candidates that did not manage to show this capacity in precarious employment situations. This is equally so for PhD Candidates that chose not to target publishing in specific journals. Consequently, PhD Students have to make a choice:  target a specific segment of journals with their research and try to publish as quickly as possible, or to decide against it and potentially lower their chances on employment post-graduation. The choice is left to the PhD Student ... However, one might say that in business & economics publish or perish has reached adulthood, changing the nature of the game ... publish in the right journal, or perish. 


[1] Hern, Alex & Duncan, Pamela (2018). Predatory publishers: the journals that churn out fake science. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/aug/10/predatory-publishers-the-journals-who-churn-out-fake-science

[2]Schuessler, Jennifer (2018). Hoaxers Slip Breastaurants and Dog-Park Sex Into Journals. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/arts/academic-journals-hoax.html?module=inline

[3]Mayo, Nick (2019). University Vows Not to Consider Journal Quality, but Does. Retrieved from: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/06/28/university-vowed-not-consider-journal-quality-hiring-does-just


Go to the profile of Christopher Albert Sabel

Christopher Albert Sabel

PhD Candidate, BI Norwegian Business School

I have been trained (and am still training) in strategic management, first at the University of Bamberg and later at the Stockholm School of Economics, as well as through CEMS. I extended my training with a short tour as strategy consultant, before I started a PhD in Business & Economics in 2017.

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