Can Junior Scholars Do Risky Research?

4 December 2015 at 5:01 pm 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

The AOM’s Entrepreneurship Division listserv has been featuring an interesting discussion on the incentives facing junior (and senior) scholars for doing “high-risk” research. To be sure, most early-career scholars focus on making incremental contributions to well-established research programs; after securing tenure, the argument goes, they can be bolder and more experimental. The problem is that, in many academic fields, junior scholars have the greatest capacity for novelty and creativity (in mathematics, for example, you may be past your prime at 35). I’m not sure this true in the social sciences, which may place too much emphasis on clever technique over mature reasoning. But certainly many academics worry that the need to publish or perish makes it difficult for junior scholars to take chances, to the detriment of scientific progress.

I really liked Jeff McMullen‘s comments on the problem, reproduced here with permission:

Dean Shepherd and I wrote a paper about this issue several years ago, which grappled with some of these issues, especially what “risky research” means to tenure track researchers. Here’s the reference:

McMullen, J. S., & Shepherd, D. A. (2006). Encouraging Consensus‐Challenging Research in UniversitiesJournal of Management Studies43(8), 1643-1669.

I wanted to write that paper because I was starting off my career and wanted to do consensus-challenging research, but I also wanted to understand the consequences of employing such a career strategy. Much of what Dean and I discovered in that research has only intensified over the years as competitive pressures have made institutional incentives that much more uniform.

The challenge for me personally, however, is not the incentives and institutional pressures; instead, it is having the moral courage to conduct research that I believe is important and valuable even though I know the academy may not yet value it, at least not yet. Will I be able to meet the high productivity bar of my colleagues whose research or approach is more mainstream? Some of us are drawn to topics that are mainstream (count your blessings you lucky dogs), but some of us just have to let our freak flags fly. What is the cost of doing research we care about and do we have the courage to pay this price?

Like other innovations, consensus-challenging research is uncertain. Just like routine must be the norm for innovation to mean anything, incremental, consensus building research has to be the norm for any notion of uncertain, consensus-challenging research to make sense. Sometimes uncertainty bearing pays off economically, but more often it does not. Therefore, uncertain payoffs are likely to be motivated by incentives that are not economic — e.g., intrinsic motivation such as intellectual curiosity or feeling like we have said something original if that’s even possible. Perhaps, this is how it should be.

So, the real question for me is and has been through much of my career: how much is it worth to me in terms of institutional status, job security, promotion, or raises to forgo incremental publications and the accolades that come with those to write papers I care about? What is the optimal blend that I might stay employed yet truly care deeply about what I write? Can I live with socio-emotional costs of not being as productive as my colleagues?

For the most part, I have been blessed to be surrounded by colleagues who have valued me and what I do, but I also sought to work for institutions and with colleagues who I believed valued what I valued or at least had that capacity.

Can the system be better? Absolutely, it could be more forgiving. We could lower the institutional costs of innovative research.  But, the system only has as much power as you and I choose to give it over our hearts and minds.  Great leaders throughout history ranging from Jesus to Gandhi to King to Mandela have confronted a similar choice between compliance and civil disobedience and have had the moral courage to choose civil disobedience despite consequences that dwarf what you and I face. Changing the system starts first with having the moral courage to make peace with the worst possible outcome and yet still having the conviction to advance what we believe in.

So, let us ask what we might change “out there” to make science more inclusive, but let us not forget to ask what we need to change in ourselves. Like the entrepreneurs we study, meaningful work has a price, and may only be meaningful because it does.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Entrepreneurship, Institutions, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Levi Russell  |  4 December 2015 at 5:18 pm

    Great stuff! The incentives for consensus-challenging work just aren’t there for early-career scholars. I think the peer review system, as it is currently arranged, is a big part of this.

    As an early-career academic, I’ve tried to work on subjects that are consensus-challenging. As McMullen points out, I’m not doing this for economic gain, but because I see gaps in our understanding that need to be filled with more than a comfy narrative.

  • 2. YSK  |  6 December 2015 at 1:11 pm

    “Sometimes uncertainty bearing pays off economically, but more often it does not.” This key sentence can be further clarified. For most financial instruments, higher the risk, higher is the expected average payoff. For research, higher the risk, lower is the expected average payoff. Anyone who wants to do risky research should be comfortable with this uneven tradeoff – a small chance of doing something truly remarkable versus a large chance of failing.

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