OLD MAN’S PAPER IN MANAGEMENT RESEARCH

Disclaimer: This blog post is meant to record my fleeting thoughts and reflections as I progress in my Ph.D. studies. What I discuss here is not necessarily related or backed up by prior studies in management scholarship.


“Old Men’s Papers” came up on a conversation with my colleague at HBS recently. “Old Men’s Papers” are papers written by senior professors, often famous and considered founding mothers or fathers of some sort in their fields. Don’t be deceived by the term “Old Men,” though—Old Men’s papers are not necessarily written by old male professors. Consider them as a particular kind of papers written by a hypothetical, stereotypical “Old Man”—like Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud or Peter Drucker.[1] We’ve all encountered such papers before. The conversation about the Old Man’s Paper stuck with me for a bit, because there was a clear gap between my colleagues and I felt about those papers—while people seem to take them negatively, I actually enjoy reading Old Men’s Papers.

An Old Man’s Paper typically exhibits three characteristics:

  • Characteristic 1: The paper mostly discusses what is irrelevant with the cutting-edge research or on-going discussions in the literature.
  • Characteristic 2: The paper discusses abstract ideas and concepts, supported by abstract ideas and concepts themselves; it provides little data nor empirical evidence.
  • Characteristic 3: The paper contains restatements and clarifications of what has been already claimed by the same author (although disguised as something new) more than a decade ago.

In other words, an Old Man’s Paper stems from what’s known as “armchair philosophizing”—and so we have the image of the old male philosopher with lots of grey beard.

People usually talk about Old Men’s Papers negatively—and rightly so. Most Old Men’s Papers are garbage. Novel ideas often emerge from direct engagement with the messy social reality and wrestling with data to try to make sense of them. That’s the premise of scientific research anyways, and Aristotle knew it 2300 years ago.

*In this famous painting of the School of Athens by a Renaissance painter Raphael, Aristotle points to the earth as where the truth lies, as oppose to Plato pointing the sky. The difference represents two thinkers’ contrasting views on where the “Truth” lies. Aristotle saw that we can make “True” statements about the natural world through the systematic observation and analysis of world—Truth lies in the details of the reality. Plato, on the other hand, believed that Truth lays in an abstract “Ideal” and exists more clearly in our minds than in the natural world.

In management scholarship, the harm brought by Old Men’s Papers seems severer than in other disciplines. Management attracts a wide range of audience including non-academicians interested in practical implications of management research.[2] Coming from non-disciplinary (not necessarily non-academic) backgrounds, practice-oriented readers are often unable to evaluate research adequately regarding whether it helps advance our scholarly knowledge in the field; and may regard Old Men’s Papers “good research.” After all, big names will attract more audience, as their names (i.e., brands) suggest their underlying unobservable qualities of their research. This may inflate the perceived value of an Old Man’s Paper among non-specialists who might not be fit to evaluate research in that field adequately. Worse, it may prevent them from learning from cutting-edge, really good research, because it makes search and discovery of good research tedious.

Why do they exist, then? I can think of both demand and supply-side reasons. The supply-side ground seems obvious—it is the author’s inability to catch up with the field and the lack of motivation to do so—also known as intellectual inertia. Big-name professors are (or used to be) remarkably research productive and love scholarly publishing. Being considered founding fathers or mothers of some fields, they “own” particular ideas, theories, and frameworks from which they built their fame. Some ideas are serendipitous, but many are due to their obsessions with answering particular puzzles or understanding particular phenomena.[3] However, over time, those path-breaking ideas, theories, or frameworks get updated, often accompanied by changing corresponding research questions. But, their obsessions with the original puzzles hinder them from moving on, to learn new things and catch up with the field. But, they still want to publish.

Old Men’s Papers also exist for a demand. After all, you cannot publish a paper just because you want to do so. The most salient demand comes from journals’ attempts to acquire readership and citation counts by publishing high-status researchers’ pieces. Not only that those papers increase journals’ visibility, or so they hope, but they also signal their status. That’s why Old Men’s Papers tend to be published in special issues that don’t go through the traditional double-blind peer reviewing process.

Should we ignore Old Men’s Papers or perhaps try to get rid of them? My answer is “NO.” I actually love Old Men’s Papers, precisely because they are free-spirited. Novice or junior researchers like us face a massive conformity pressure to internalize how everyone else in the field thinks, even though it is already difficult for us not-so-knowledgeable to come up with new ideas. Ph.D. students are expected to do research that signals our scholarly abilities in a particular (often existing) field to become a successful candidate for academic positions; junior faculty needs to establish a research agenda—a series of A-level publications consistent with particular themes that shape scholarly identities. True, your colleagues will encourage you to think freely and challenge the common knowledge in the field. But too often, what they mean by it is to aim at the “sweet” spot—right at the edge, not outside, of the box. Old Men’s Papers flout such conformity pressures. They inspire me to think outside of the box.

The Old Man is an exceptional scholar with a track record of path-breaking research, a breadth of experience and knowledge—wisdom—and job security, and is free from the short-term conformity pressure. Pieces coming out of such a woman and man concern big pictures—things like “What is organizational research for?” (Davis, 2015; Weick, 2016) ; “The capacity for exercising vision and prudence in passing judgment has, it seems, deserted many working in the financial industries, and this lack appears to have spilled over into many other industries as well. […] Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” (Nonaka, Chia, Holt, & Peltokorpi, 2014: 366-367). What bold, yet intriguing questions! How often do we get to think about these things?

The Old Man’s Paper also encourages me to read outside of my home discipline. The Old Man’s Paper often defies disciplinary boundaries and draws on insights from various fields:  That the Old Man armchair-philosophizes means that he reads a lot beyond what is commonly read by ordinary scholars. Reading such papers provokes lots of thoughts beyond what is minimally necessary to succeed as a researcher in the field. But that redundancy is often the key to a breakthrough.

As long as we do our best to maintain the standard and rigor in the cutting-edge research, Old Men’s Papers could be great additions and sources of inspirations. After all, they may help us break out of our fixated ways of thinking and prevent us from being stuck in the dominant, yet narrow framework of the time and field.

Do I ever want to write an Old Man’s Paper? Absolutely! It will be so much fun. The reality is, though, I probably won’t be able to write an Old Man’s Paper anytime soon due to my lacking bandwidth and wisdom.[4] Meanwhile, I do my best to contribute to the cutting-edge research that is considered clearly a pressing issue in the field and beyond.


REFERENCES

Davis, G. F. 2015. What Is Organizational Research For? Administrative Science Quarterly, 60(2): 179–188.

Nonaka, I., Chia, R., Holt, R., & Peltokorpi, V. 2014. Wisdom, management and organization. Management Learning, 45(4): 365-376.

Weick, K. 2016. 60th Anniversary Essay: Constrained Comprehending: The Experience of Organizational Inquiry. Administrative Science Quarterly.


Endnotes

[1] A friend of mine asked how the Old Man’s paper differs from the classics. An Old Man’s paper can be a classic. However, two are neither mutually exclusive nor the same thing. A good paper with solid empirical analysis can be and often be a classic; a good Old Man’s Paper might not be a classic.

[2] Practical value of management scholarship is a topic to discuss at another time.

[3] A friend of mine reading a draft of this essay commented that I should discuss more on the psychological and epistemological mechanism of how the Old Man becomes obsessed with a particular idea and framework—the work orientation literature discusses it as“calling.” As a philosophy student, he pointed out that an interesting analysis could be made by drawing on philosophers like Martin Heidegger, W. V. O. Quine, Karl Popper, and Thomas Kuhn. This line of thinking lies outside of my scope, but it is nevertheless interesting to ponder. Below is my friend’s comment:

I would be curious to know more the psychological and epistemological reason behind this. Like can our being-in-the-world (in Heideggerian sense) continue to update itself, or does it stop at some point even if that person is a scholar of some kind and maintains his sincere efforts? Especially when he is some big name and fully absorbed in the world of his famous theories and explanations. It reminds me of Quine’s epistemological commitment theory: a fact, a theory may become a truth by man’s commitment. Or, the confirmation bias theory, for a cheaper explanation. An Old Man out of discourse is probably the latter. Popper’s falsification theory is another thing that can make this topic interesting as well. The relationship between academic norms and breakthrough theory is another thing I’d be curious to read (something you briefly mentioned before). 

[4] A friendly reviewer asked whether it is worthwhile to talk about how to write a good Old Man’s Paper. It is an intriguing question. Unfortunately, I was not sure if I am qualified to discuss it. It could be interesting to meta-analyze Old Men’s Papers to identify elements that make path-breaking Old Men’s Papers from total dud.

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