The business of management research at Indian b-schools

Roughly between March and June, business schools carry a vacant look. The first-year-going-on-second-year MBA batch leaves for its summer internships to the corporate world whereas the faculty gets temporary relief from teaching and can concentrate on the other vital role incumbent on them — management research. This essential mandate of a b-school to pursue knowledge creation has largely been overlooked by the public eye amidst the rhetoric surrounding placement salaries and admission cutoffs.

But just how productive are Indian management faculty at research output? According to a study conducted by London Business Schools (LBS) Aditya Birla India Center professors Nirmalya Kumar and Phanish Puranam, the research output of Indian b-schools is nothing to write home about and compared to Asian standards, dismal; leave alone international standards. The study adds that although there have been encouraging signs of increasing output lately, they are not enough.

(Image courtesy: Aditya Birla India Center, London Business School)

The study, which examined the author count of Indian b-school faculty in 40 top-billed management journals of the world observed that between 1990 and 1999, the Indian Statistical Institutes (ISI) at Kolkata, New Delhi and Bangalore together sported 19 author counts in the Financial Times list of top-40 management journals — the maximum number from any Indian institution — rather than the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), which collectively had an author count of 7. (The FT top-40 journals are widely regarded as the most rigorous and impactful publications on management science worldwide. The list has grown to 45 journals in 2010, but the study drew from the 2009 list when it was still FT 40.)

The trend reversed after the turn of the century and between 2000 and 2009, two IIMs — IIM Calcutta and IIM Bangalore — pipped the ISIs by nearly quadrupling their collective output to an author count of 19. IIM Ahmedabad on the other hand lagged far behind, having contributed only two research papers to top journals in this decade.

However, the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad — a new b-school which published its first research paper in a top-tier journal in 2003 — has managed to beat all the IIMs by garnering an author count of 11 in these journals between 2003 and 2009. The study considered only those research papers which were authored or co-authored by the fulltime resident faculty at ISB, and not those by ISBs visiting faculty.

The study also identifies Xavier Labour Relations Institute (XLRI), Jamshedpur and Management Development Institute (MDI), Gurgaon as two prominent private b-schools with sporadic output in top-tier journals. All the four papers credited to XLRI have been co-authored by Prof ES Srinivas, who has now left the school to join ISB Hyderabad.

Between 1990 and 2009, India as a whole contributed to only 108 papers in the top management journals, or about 5 papers a year.

(Complete list of papers authored by Indian b-school faculty in FT 40 journals between 1990-2009)

How does this compare with the rest of the world? As a reference point, Asian b-schools such as HKUST School of Business, Hong Kong produce more than 30 research papers in top journals in a single year, while American b-schools such as The Wharton School or MIT Sloan School of Business are known to publish between 70-100 research papers every year.

Academics in India acknowledge that research excellence in Indian b-schools has been sidelined in favor of teaching excellence and that any emerging change is largely within the IIMs at Bangalore, Calcutta, Ahmedabad and ISB Hyderabad.

Prof U Dinesh Kumar, Chairperson – Research and Publications, IIM Bangalore tells PaGaLGuY, So far the IIMs have been great teaching institutes. But most of what we teach is not generated within IIMs. Unless we become knowledge generators, we are not going to improve our standing at the international level.

Lately, IIM Bangalore has started giving more importance to knowledge generation. Not just any kind of research, but research which gets published in high quality journals, he adds.

According to Prof Nirmalya Kumar, There is hardly a significant research culture in Indian b-schools. Faculty at IIM Ahmedabad, Calcutta or Bangalore largely do not aspire to get published in the top research journals. The senior faculty members do not encourage the junior faculty to get published beyond the initial mentorship period. They dont have enough faculty seminars where research is discussed.

A leading professor who has taught in both the IIM and ISB systems and does not wish to be named outlines, IIMs as institutions have been insulated from the rest of the world for a long time. The global integration of India started only in the 1990s. Since then, the need to integrate our management academics with the rest of the world became clearer.

Prof Rahul Mukerjee of the operations management department at IIM Calcutta who has 208 refereed published papers to his credit and has been on the editorial board of a number of journals draws attention to the importance of research. Developments at the global level are taking place very rapidly. Unless there is serious research it is hard to keep track of these developments and translate these outputs to the classroom. Research helps to keep the faculty up to date and ensures better teaching in the long run.

ISB Hyderabads Senior Associate Dean of Academic Programmes Prof Dishan Kamdar — who the LBS study identifies as one of Indias most productive researchers in top-tier international journals — insists that unless and until the faculty of a b-school is research-active, they will not be able to design a curriculum that is cutting-edge.

Management professors also testify to have personally gained ground in teaching due to their research activity.

Prof MH Balasubrahmanya of the Department of Management Studies, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) – Bangalore says, If somebody relies on teaching and cases developed by somebody else, it will largely look artificial. For me when I teach, I spontaneously pick examples from my research. Because it is I who did that research, I can convincingly link it all together.

Most management books are developed from an Americans perspective. There is no guarantee that what is mentioned in Philip Kotlers book is applicable in India or in emerging markets. So there is a need to do research to find out what works in emerging markets and bring those experiences to the classroom, explains Prof U Dinesh Kumar.

Incentive systems at IIMs — and consequently in other Indian b-schools which have structured themselves on the lines of the IIMs — have for long rewarded teaching at the cost of research. While prominent b-schools worldwide accord star faculty status to those who have written impactful books and research papers, in India the celebrity faculty tend to be those who teach second-hand material really well.

But in recent times, a growing concern among the oldest IIMs about becoming academically irrelevant at a global level, the pressure to feature in international b-school rankings and competition from new entrants such as ISB Hyderabad has led the government-run b-schools to review the importance they put on research.

Because of these factors, in the last ten years there has been a kind of a soft pressure among the IIMs academic community to publish research in top quality journals. This soft pressure best explains why the IIMs pipped the ISIs research output after the year 2000.

But the importance of high quality research was formally recognised only in the last half-decade, when IIM Bangalore and IIM Calcutta made it difficult for its faculty to get promotions unless they published a requisite number research papers in a list of 120-odd top international journals. For new faculty to get hired into IIM Bangalore, it is now also important to display research aptitude and some previous output.

At ISB Hyderabad, which follows the academic tenure system for its faculty, this list of top journals is even narrower at some 20-30 publications. Faculty at ISB credit the school with having brought about a disruptive change in the Indian market which left little choice for the IIMs but to intensify their focus on management research.

Faculty incentives at ISB were clearly aligned towards research from the beginning. If we do not produce the requisite number of papers in the designated list of journals, we will not get tenure, describes a faculty member at ISB. This has resulted in an impressive publication record for ISBs fulltime faculty as observed in the LBS study.

There are however, critics of the recent increase of Indian management academics author counts in FT 40 journals.

IIScs Prof Balasubrahmanya points out that most of these papers have been co-authored with western researchers.

It is important to see how many researchers have published papers as single authors in these journals. If you count single authors, the number may be very less. Whether you like it or not, there is a kind of a bias against non-American and non-European scholars particularly in the FT 40 journals. Only if Indians associate themselves with American or European scholars, is there some chance of getting published in these journals, he says.

Of the 108 papers featuring Indian authors in the LBS study, only one quarter (27) were written entirely by Indians, either individually or as a group. The rest were all co-authored with non-Indians.

IIM Bangalores Prof Ganesh Prabhu draws attention to the idea that often Indian researchers have a limited role to play in the creation of the papers they are credited with. Often, these are big team research initiatives where all that an Indian scholar does is collect some data asked of him and get an author credit in return.

Indeed, there are six research papers among the 108 in the LBS study co-authored by more than seven scholars one of whom is an Indian, indicating that Prof Prabhu may have a point about these being big team researches.

It is numbers such as these that have created a widespread belief among faculty that the top management journals, most of whom happen to be American, are biased against Indian scholars and their research topics and that the only way to get published in these journals is to team up with an American. Some go to the extent of concluding that American journals are not interested in non-American research and therefore Indian scholars should concentrate on publishing in Indian journals.

Prof Nirmalya Kumar, who co-authored the LBS study rubbishes these beliefs. About 20 years ago, American journals were averse to papers written outside of the USA. But that has changed and today they are extremely eager to learn about China and India. If you looked at the amount of Indian research by Indian authors belonging to universities outside India which get published, you will know that the claim that they (American journals) are averse to Indian authors is false. B-schools in China are beating those in India hands down when it comes to the author count in these journals.

He adds, These are all rigorous double-blind peer-reviewed journals, which means that the papers reviewers do not know the authors identity and vice versa. Where is the question of a bias?

ISBs Prof Kamdar believes, Its a big myth that top-tier western journals are not interested in Indian research. In all my top-tier publications all my data comes from Indian or Singaporean companies. In my experience these Editors are even more interested in research from India, China and Asia than from anywhere else.

IIM Bangalores Prof U Dinesh Kumar, who has been on the editorial board of international journals points out that Indian scholars might be mistaking the intrinsic lack of quality in their research for a bias against Indian research.

To be honest, the quality of research by majority of Indian authors is not good. There are a few Indian authors who are very good. But in most cases the writing skills arent there. Sometimes the story may be there but the analytical rigor or mathematical analysis may be missing, he recounts.

A professor who has taught at both IIMs and ISB believes that Indian doctoral programmes in management do not equip researchers enough to produce top quality output.

PhD training is expected to give you skills required to do good quality research. But in India, except at a few institutes such skills are not really imparted to PhD students. Therefore many faculty are not capable of producing high quality research. Hence many of the contributions to top-tier research now are coming from the new crop of faculty coming from foreign universities or the revamped doctoral programmes of the IIMs and not from senior faculty. This new crop is getting better training, he explains.

Some academics however acknowledge that in the beginning of ones research career, it may help to collaborate with American co-authors.

It may teach you some skills such as structuring your paper properly and showing you the rigour that is expected behind a top-tier paper. But after publishing one or two papers, I do not believe that you need a foreign co-author to get published. says a professor at IIM Calcutta.

He adds that co-authorship does not necessarily mean dependence of the Indian author on his American counterpart.

A majority of the two or three member author teams involving an Indian are the result of networking during international conferences. B-schools such as some IIMs and ISB now allow their faculty one foreign trip per year to attend conferences in Europe or USA where they can meet scholars with similar interests and decide to co-author a paper with a wide geographical scope. If anybody is misunderstanding this as dependence, their institute probably does not allow such a networking opportunity for them to realise why some researchers publish co-authored studies, he reasons.

The absence of high quality management research journals in India has compounded the b-schools reliance on foreign journals in order to benchmark the quality of their facultys research.

IIM Bangalores Prof U Dinesh Kumar dismisses a question about comparing the quality of research in Indian journals against that in international top-tier journals saying, The difference is huge. Its not even worth a comparison.

To publish in a top international journal, faculty may have to work for at least 3 to 5 years to publish one paper. Whereas to publish in even the best Indian journal, it does not take more than a month. The quality should not even be compared, he summarizes.

Prof Kamdar explains, Very stark difference (between Indian journals and top international journals). The difference comes from the quality of the paper, the theoretical rigor and the research methodology. The competition also matters. Professors across the world target to publish in top-tier journals.

The competition can be best illustrated using the arithmetic involved. A top-tier bi-monthly research journal on Organisational Behaviour (OB) containing 12-15 articles gets on an average 300-500 papers submitted for consideration from OB professors across the world. The acceptance ratio ranges between 5% to 30% depending on the journal. There is intense competition with faculty from Oxford, Wharton, Harvard and others. In order to pass the double-blind peer-review process, the research paper has to be extremely rigorous, theoretically sound and aimed at creating big impact.

In comparison, a typical Indian journal may receive about 50-60 submissions for its quarterly issue only from Indian professors, many of which have to be sent back because they are just very poorly written.

If you browsed the faculty profiles on Indian b-school websites, you would usually see a list of published papers under the research section. The esoteric knowledge needed to interpret that list is that a large number of those papers are published in non-refereed research journals from India, Africa or other developing countries and have poor or no impact and relevance.

There are tons of research journals out there but the majority of the Indian ones rarely have a readership beyond the editor himself and maybe another twenty people. It is easy to get published in these journals and claim to have a research record and get away with it in India. I believe that is the kind of research that majority of the faculty in b-schools apart from the top three IIMs, ISB and maybe another two to three good schools are doing, says a former professor from IIM Ahmedabad now heading a private b-school in Bangalore.

Any claims about the research excellence of a b-school can be verified by searching for its faculty members names in free science citation indices such as Google Scholar.

The absence of enough competent management researchers in India is a barrier for an ambitious journal to create a vibrant community of referees who will add the necessary rigor.

A few reputed Indian journals on statistics, agricultural sciences or social sciences (such as the Economic and Political Weekly) address areas overlapping the interests of management professors in operations, economics or strategy and do attract publications from b-school faculty. But they are essentially not management journals.

There are efforts however to initiate indigenous management journals such as the IIM Business Review, a journal on applied management on the lines of the Harvard Business Review or the MIT Sloan Management Review which will be run jointly by the IIMs to showcase research by their faculty. The journal, it is so proposed by the Ajit Balakrishnan IIM review committee, will initially be funded with a Rs one crore grant from the Indian governments Human Resource Development Ministry and gradually be handed over to the IIMs who will handle it on a rotation basis.

Another encouraging sign — although not directly linked to management research — has been in the form of IIM Bangalore forging an agreement with the Harvard Business Publishing to distribute the schools own case studies. Under the pact, case studies written by IIM Bangalores professors on business practices and problems in Indian companies will be circulated to academics all over the world.

Academics are of the opinion that while the recent research-friendly measures by half a dozen of Indias top b-schools are a step in the right direction, much more needs to be done by many more schools. Systems such as ISBs are at an advantage, it being a new school without baggage. The IIMs on the other hand have the task of fighting a long legacy of teaching-oriented culture on the road to being research-friendly schools.

Looking ahead, Prof Nirmalya Kumar stresses the the need for creating a strong research culture within Indian b-schools, the first step of which should be to rid the faculty of teaching and administrative burden.

Here at London Business School we have at least one faculty seminar everyday where a professor from some part of the world talks about his research and faculty members show up to these seminars. Our watercooler conversations are all about what the latest exciting paper we are writing and could we please share the paper. Nobody has ever asked me how my business school is doing or burdened me with administrative tasks, he describes.

Prof Kamdar recommends that b-schools should invest in research, resources, databases and access to all journals. Provide research grants to travel to top-tier conferences. Most schools have some provisions for a few professors to attend conferences. It should be made by default for all professors to attend one conference a year to go and network, meet people, present a paper and come back with feedback.

IIM Calcuttas Prof Rahul Mukerjee emphasises on the importance of networking and attending international conferences for b-school faculty. You have to produce good work and you also have to belong to a group of researchers. Sitting in India, the latter is hard to achieve. If you do good work, there have to be people around you to say that the work is really good and it warrants publication in a journal.

Prof U Dinesh Kumar advocates that without strong employment-related incentives, there is no reason why a b-schools faculty will take research seriously.

While it may take at least a decade for the IIMs to steer their research output anywhere near their Asian counterparts, Prof Kumar projects, Even if five years from now all of the established IIMs together produced 10 papers in the top-tier journals, the whole world will start noticing us.

Publish or perish should be the golden rule at b-schools, concludes Prof Kamdar.