Responsible research strives for useful, credible knowledge relevant to addressing societal and planetary challenges. But what does this mean? Can researchers identify questions that are, at the same time, of relevance for society and publishable in the journals that often make or break careers? Reflecting on the movement for responsible research in marketing research, Michael Haenlein explores how the field can align itself with these goals.
Many people intuitively think of STEM disciplines when discussing research. Within these disciplines, researchers often work on highly relevant issues (for example, mRNA COVID-19 vaccines) using rigorous methods (double-blind placebo-controlled medical trials in multiple stages). Rigour and relevance go hand in hand, and there is no inherent contradiction between the need to follow stringent procedures and the wish to make the world a better place.
This does not mean that research always fulfils both goals. The following are also real examples of research: measuring how ocean-water mixing is affected by the sexual activity of anchovies, using cadavers to explore whether there is an equal number of hairs in each of a person’s two nostrils, and explaining why many scientists lick rocks. These projects were all winners of this year’s Ig Nobel Prize, which celebrates trivial achievements. While this type of research may provide amusing material for dinner-time conversation, it is not exactly the goal pursued by the growing responsible research movement.
Useful, credible, and responsible research
Responsible research aims to be societally relevant and useful. It is gaining increasing prominence in the social sciences, as evidenced by organizations like the Responsible Research in Business & Management (RRBM) network. This virtual organization, combining leading scholars, major accreditation bodies, and leading schools worldwide, stipulates that business research should serve society by being useful and credible (i.e., reliable and valid).
The problem of responsible research is particularly relevant in business since relevance and rigour often lead to contradictions. Assume one wants to analyse the (very relevant) issue of how the more widespread use of generative artificial intelligence (e.g., ChatGPT) impacts the job market. To do so, one would need to take a sample of firms, split it randomly into a test and control group, force the test group to implement AI, and wait some years (maybe ten) while holding external factors like competition and technological advancement constant, and then observe the result. This is obviously not possible.
The problem of responsible research is particularly relevant in business since relevance and rigour often lead to contradictions.
In business and much social science research, there is, therefore, often a gap between the questions we can obtain data for and the questions that are of sufficient importance to be studied. To bridge that gap, scholars frequently focus on questions where data is available and which can be analysed rigorously, even if they are less important. It’s like the proverbial drunken person who looks for his lost keys where the light is – instead of where he might have lost them. It is why most journals are filled with answers to operational questions relevant for low-level managers (where data is available) and not with answers to big strategic issues where data is much harder to find (but which are significantly more important).
In this respect, the first and most important principle of the RRBM network is decidedly ambitious: To remain relevant, business research must devote more attention to developing new knowledge that benefits businesses and society to create a better world. This implies that instead of looking into any question, we should focus on those that can change the behaviour of one or several stakeholders. To do this, individual responsible research projects must have two characteristics: They must be credible, providing findings, tools, propositions, or frameworks that can be trusted. They must also be useful. That is, they can potentially change behaviours for the better. The more stakeholders change their behaviour in these ways, the higher their status, and the bigger their behaviour change – the more responsible the research.
Useful for who?
Research usefulness comprises two dimensions: impact magnitude and impact breadth. The former refers to the potential change in stakeholder behaviour leading to an improvement in the well-being of a stakeholder, society, or planet; the latter refers to the span of entities likely to be impacted by a piece of research.
Business researchers should also broaden their research contexts and outcomes. Reduced income and education inequality, reduced hunger and homelessness, and better public health are all non-firm-related outcomes that should be considered.
For instance, business scholars have historically focused on the firm and its immediate stakeholders (customers, employees, managers). However, this research leads to minimal changes in their behaviours or well-being. Responsible research should aim to generate a greater change and/or greater well-being of more of these stakeholders. For example, research on consumer well-being. Here, work on consumer financial decision-making has enabled consumers to have more secure retirements and reduce debt more quickly. A similar case can be made for research that results in better outcomes for multiple stakeholders, such as research on addressing algorithmic bias, which could benefit firms and customers.
Business researchers should also broaden their research contexts and outcomes. Reduced income and education inequality, reduced hunger and homelessness, and better public health are all non-firm-related outcomes that should be considered. These objectives could be achieved through socially beneficial corporate behaviour such as green products, employee wellness programs, and sustainable supply chain practices. Yet, at present, these areas do not receive the attention they deserve.
Academics often forget how resource-intensive their research is. Publishing an article can take many years and often involves teams of two or three authors. Counting together the time spent on research (sometimes 50% of a professor’s time), the years to publication (2-3 years in the best of cases), the number of authors (2-3), adding to it social security, summer support and the money to conduct research, results in an estimated cost of up to $500,000 per article. This money is paid by society in one way or another through taxes (for publicly funded institutions), tuition money (which often means students taking on loans), or donations. Therefore, researchers have an ethical responsibility to ensure our findings give back to society.
Business schools assemble the brightest minds in strategy, marketing, finance, and people management. RRBM tries to convince the field that work can simultaneously be relevant, important, and publishable.
Regarding research with greater societal and even global impact (a subject many faculty are eager to embrace), which areas and topics are relevant? Sometimes, academics need not look very far. One way to start is to consider dependent variables such as pollution or illiteracy levels instead of the traditional shareholder value, sales figures, and market share. This is a straightforward way to apply approaches and methods faculty are familiar with to questions of broader relevance. Another simple step could be taking traditional research methods and theories and focusing on a societal context, for instance, underserved communities or non-profits. In one of my own projects, for example, we use the concept of customer journeys (mostly known for explaining how people buy products for pleasure) and apply it to end-of-life care – a setting where consumers are vulnerable and consume a service they have to buy (rather than want to buy).
As researchers, we do not act in isolation from society. Business schools assemble the brightest minds in strategy, marketing, finance, and people management. RRBM tries to convince the field that work can simultaneously be relevant, important, and publishable. To do this, we might spend a bit more time ensuring we are looking for these questions in the right places. Not all that is relevant is important. But all that is important is worth spending our time on.
This blog post draws on a guest editorial, Responsible Research in Marketing, by Michael Haenlein, Mary Jo Bitner, Ajay K. Kohli, Katherine N. Lemon & David J. Reibstein published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.
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