How Communication about Business Research to the Public Matters for Policy Making

Jerry Davis, Associate Dean for Business+Impact, Michigan Ross School of Business


Academics face a conundrum.

Many of us have a lot of freedom in the kinds of research problems we choose to pursue, and while sometimes this leads down obscure pathways, occasionally we uncover findings or create ideas that deserve a broad audience. But we are trained to write for each other, and rewarded for being acknowledged by our peers. If we want to connect to the broader world, and perhaps to influence policy and practice, we need a different kind of training that gets us beyond the normal path of peer-reviewed publications.

Jerry Davis
Jerry Davis, Associate Dean for Business+Impact, Michigan Ross School of Business

I have a PhD in business, which sounds like it might be an MBA on steroids, but actually involves heavy-duty training in social science research. Business schools are a distinctively American form of educational institution. They grew in prevalence in the early part of the 20th century along with the corporations they helped to staff. General Motors and Harvard Business School were both born in 1908, and as corporations took over more of the economy from family businesses, business schools expanded to meet the demand for professional managers. Early business research had a fraught status within the academy. Colleagues in other schools suspected that research on stenography and bookkeeping may not have contributed much to the expansion of timeless human knowledge. But a series of reforms that started in the 1950s led business schools to emphasize rigorous research over applications. Today, many business scholars worry that the pendulum has swung too far, and that researchers have become indifferent to practice.

While outsiders might imagine that business faculty spend much of their day on the phone to CEOs dispensing advice, in reality their efforts are largely aimed at publishing in “A journals” and getting cited, much like the rest of the university.

For most of my career, I followed the standard trajectory, assessing my impact as a scholar in terms of publications and citations. I also helped perpetrate this system for years as the editor-in-chief of a fancy journal. My work documented the strange transmogrifications that finance had inflicted on American society, particularly on how corporations were operated. The idea that corporations existed to create shareholder value had spread widely and created a lot of mischief along the way.

Most surprisingly, I found that corporations were disappearing. Between 1997 and 2011, the number of American companies listed on stock markets dropped by half, and household names like Westinghouse and Kodak and Circuit City and Borders were evaporating. And while some might applaud this as a sign of “creative destruction,” there was not a lot of creating going on, as the number of new firms listing on stock markets never recovered.

Graph of The declining number of US public corporations
The declining number of US public corporations Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators 2019

Moreover, these missing corporations were leaving a giant hole in the American social safety net, which traditionally relied on employers to provide job training, health insurance, upward mobility, and retirement security. The decline of the middle class and the crisis of the American healthcare system tracked with the retrenchment of traditional employers like AT&T and GM.


Who’s still in the Dow Jones index from 1988 (in red)
Who’s still in the Dow Jones index from 1988 (in red)

The public needed to understand this shift if we were going to have an informed discussion of policy options. But how to get the word out?

I knew from years of publishing in social science journals that it is exceptionally rare for academic publications to make it out into the world on their own, and most journal articles live behind paywalls that make them inaccessible to the public. Worse yet, I had seen how perfectly reasonable academic findings could be distorted in translation when authors did not have control of their own message. If I wanted to communicate with the public, I would have to learn to do it on my own.

My first impulse was to write a book. Who doesn’t love business books? It turns out, almost everybody. (A visit to the basement of The Strand used bookstore in New York, where unloved review copies of books are sold, should sober any potential author. And I am still waiting for that phone call to appear on The Daily Show.) Colleagues may have the patience to spend 200 pages with your argument, but the broader world rarely does (with very rare exceptions).

How about high-tone online business publications with paywalls? The graphics are attractive, but the readership is modest. Conversely, ungated publications such as Yahoo Finance have very large readerships, but the unmediated commentary section will shake anyone’s faith in humanity.

The best balance I have found is in The Conversation, which publishes compact op-ed-style pieces by academics grounded in research, with links to the underlying academic articles. Articles are published under a Creative Commons license, which means they can be republished by almost any other outlet as long as they are not altered, and there is a link back to the original piece. (My Conversation articles have been republished by venues from traditional newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek, to local daily papers around the world, to more alarming outlets like Quillette.) It is not uncommon for an individual article to get tens of thousands of reads. Moreover, they often lead to other inquiries from journalists (many of whom pay attention to The Conversation for leads). As a bonus, academics themselves increasingly recognize The Conversation as a valued outlet, and colleagues will often drill down to read the original pieces.

Once journalists recognize a scholar as an expert in a particular topic area who is willing to take their calls, the process becomes self-regenerating. This helps explain why the same media-friendly experts turn up in many different publications, and why I continue to get inquiries about topics I stopped studying years ago.

The new Public Engagement Faculty Fellowship program can help scholars who want to reach out to the public to shortcut the process I went through, and avoid some of the time-consuming dead-ends. Explicit training in how to craft short publications with a public audience in mind, and expert guidance on how to interact most productively with journalists, would have been incredibly helpful to me 10 years ago. To be honest, I could still use some expert guidance (as anyone who’s read some of my wackier quotes can verify).

Has outreach made a difference? There is some sign that the word is getting out. Ironically, an article I published in a respectable science journal, describing how difficult it is to convey social science findings to the public, has itself found a fair number of readers. And if there are any presidential candidates looking for a potential Secretary of Labor…DM me on Twitter (@vanishingcorp), where I will be sharing some more recent work.

screencap of Sean Swider using ViewPoint tool