Writing an academic article? Do your best, but its fate lies in the hands of others

Donald T Campbell once told me, “Academic life is the struggle for citations.” More prosaically, the person who dies with the most citations wins! But is it sensible to set your writing goal as achieving fame through citations reaped? I think it is an unrealistic and distracting goal, and in this post, I’ll argue for a different approach.

 For decades, I have taught workshops on social science writing to graduate students and junior faculty. In those workshops, I have focused on the process of writing, not an author’s aspirations for the finished product. My workshops emphasize preparing to write, such as how to take notes on readings, construct conceptual outlines, and seek help from others. I focus on best practices in preparing to write, such as finding a quiet environment in which to work, not editing as you write, and not beginning to work on the production process until an outline is complete. Although I assume that everyone wishes to create an excellent paper, I discourage them from fantasizing about how their target audience will receive their work.

Why do I emphasize the process of writing rather than how others will receive it? Simply put, humans lack clairvoyance. Regardless of what pundits, coaches, and prognosticators claim, no one can foretell the future. Recognition of academic work as pioneering only occurs after the fact and depends upon receptive contexts, which are constantly changing. Given the long lead time between the conception of an article and its publication, authors would need to see two or three years into the future to prepare their work for the context in which it will be read. That’s a mug’s game.

Let me offer three examples from my own work to illustrate my argument. I’ll use two examples in which I was completely blindsided by a paper’s success and one in which I had high hopes. The first two succeeded beyond my wildest dreams and the third has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

My first example comes from the mid-1980s and involves a paper I wrote with Catherine Zimmer on “entrepreneurship through social networks.” It was dashed off over a long weekend at the request of a desperate conference organizer who needed a replacement paper at the last minute. I was supposed to be the discussant for a scholar who fell ill, and the organizer asked me if I could put something together, on the conference theme, and get it to him as soon as possible. I wrote up four simple ideas, based on my research over the past decade, and presented the paper the following week.

The paper was not an overnight sensation. Over its initial 5 years, it achieved only 58 citations. It took another 5 years to earn 200 citations. However, by the mid-1990s, “entrepreneurship” as a topic was flourishing, and our paper’s imagery crystallized the concept of entrepreneurial networking for readers. By 2003, almost 20 years after its publication, it was earning about a hundred citations a year, resulting in about 4600 total citations to date. Had I foreseen its success? Absolutely not. Our goal was simply to put talking points on the table.

My second example is the paper that Marlena Fiol and I published in 1994, applying institutional theory and cognitive psychology ideas to entrepreneurship and the genesis of new industries. We constructed the paper out of boilerplate ideas from institutional theory and social psychology and gave it a trial run as a conference paper. It then spent several years in revise and resubmit purgatory at the Academy of Management Review before it was published. Over its initial 5 years, it received only 121 citations. Clearly, entrepreneurship scholars ignored it for many years. Interest eventually increased, but it still had only 525 citations by 2004, 10 years after its publication. Since 2012, however, it’s been receiving around 300 or more citations a year and now stands at roughly 5300.

 Apparently, it was published in an era not yet ready for it. Only when the context changed, and neo-institutional theory became established in the management departments of business schools, did it begin to gain traction. Additional insight into the lack of authorial control can be gleaned from my attempts to restructure the paper’s narrative. In 1999, in my book Organizations Evolving, I revised the paper’s conceptual scheme that described how budding entrepreneurs in emerging industries gained cognitive and sociopolitical legitimacy for their startups. My changes were substantial, and I implored my friends to stop citing the 1994 paper and begin citing the book. But I was spitting against the wind. Today that seriously outdated paper is still the main go-to citation for people wanting to signal that they understand the legitimacy crisis facing nascent entrepreneurs in emerging industries. My intentions don’t matter for the people who use references to trumpet their own theoretical acumen.

 My third example involves a paper that, unlike the previous two examples, I truly believe had great potential for making an impact. My co-author, Richard Berk, had published a paper on how people participating in civil disorders in American inner cities chose targets to vandalize. In his paper, he claimed that participants’ major consideration was the kinds of goods a business sold, rather than whether its owners were white or Black. I challenged his conclusion, and he threw the challenge right back at me. He invited me to use a panel data set I had collected from three cities, containing before and after interviews with about 600 business owners in inner city neighborhoods, all of which had experienced civil disorders in 1967 or 1968. The panel nature of the data set let us avoid selection bias because we had a random sample of the business population, before the disorders. My co-author turned out to be right. In our paper, published in the American Sociological Review, we showed that net of location and business characteristics, the race of an owner made no difference as to whether a business was targeted.

Despite our compelling evidence on a topic of great interest to urban sociologists, public policy analysts, and collective behavior scholars, our paper was ignored. In the initial 10 years after being published, it accumulated only 25 citations. For the next 20 years, only 24 more, and and after 50 years, its current total citation count stands at 79. In the decades following its publication, authors writing about civil disorders (even about the cities we had studied in the 1960s) simply ignored it. Grand claims were made about the motivations of participants in the disorders by people who evidently used second-hand accounts as a basis for their conjectures. Our paper sank into oblivion.

 I offer these three examples to make a simple point: when an author writes a paper, despite whatever fantasies they might have about its value to the field, they have little or no control over how it will be used. Accordingly, I advise students and junior scholars to write about something that they find interesting rather than trendy or topical. They may want to follow the lead of others, but they shouldn’t do it blindly. They must care about it themselves and feel strongly enough to invest resources in doing an excellent job.

 Authors should write about an issue that means something to them and that excites them so much that they want to tell others about it. They must be enthusiastically and emotionally committed so that they can keep at it, until they get the story right. They must please themselves, rather than thinking about their contributions to posterity. Is this short-term thinking? Yes! All an author can know is that in their current context, they have found something that motivates them to do research and write. Because they don’t know the context in which their work will ultimately appear, their primary impulse cannot be that they are doing it for the sake of posterity.

 Of course, to the extent that authors choose to write about something that they find satisfying and fulfilling, they become a perfect advocate for that cause. Thus, they could recruit others to the topic. In keeping with the way that effectuation scholars talk about the entrepreneurial process, they might well bring into being what they had hoped for in choosing that topic. In short, their wishes could come true. But regardless of the outcome of that project, the best thing they can do for themselves is to focus on doing the best they can, in that moment. Excellent work really is its own reward.

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