Making a theoretical contribution

· by Brian S. Anderson · Read in about 2 min · (393 words) ·

I’m not a fan of the necessity to have a novel theoretical contribution to publish in top management journals. Arguably, I think this standard has contributed to the replication crisis in the social sciences. Nonetheless, that is the standard, so it’s helpful to think through just what a theoretical contribution means in the era of the replication crisis.

Making a theoretical contribution is absolutely in the eye of the beholder. My working hypothesis is that whether an editor believes you have met this standard has a lot to do with the clarity of the writing. The better the writing/argumentation, the better the probability that the editor and reviewers will see the ‘theoretical contribution’ in the paper. This makes writing quality the single biggest predictor of paper acceptance, and not the ‘That’s Interesting!’ standard that, also, likely contributed to the replication crisis in the first place.

So given that writing quality is the key to crossing the theoretical contribution bar, I would argue that the single best way to enhance writing quality in an management study is clarity of purpose. This is, quite simply, being clear in what you are trying to accomplish. If the purpose of the study is to offer a are grand theory of the firm, great. Just. Say. So.

If you have more modest aims, just say so. To me, a theoretical contribution is something that improves our understanding of the nomological relationship between two or more phenomena. If that means your study is a replication, GREAT! Just say that’s what you are doing. If your study asks an existing question but does it in a more rigorous way, even better!!! We need to revisit a number of past findings with new data and new—yes, that means better—methods. My point is that the key to making a theoretical contribution is to just be clear; to be intellectually honest about the purpose behind a study.

As a spillover benefit, I think clarity of purpose will also help address the HARKing problem. If a study is using data from an already published paper, if the code isn’t made available, and if the original study wasn’t pre-registered, well, the paper is probably a fishing expedition masquerading as, well, a new source of broad managerial insight. If it’s fishing, just call it that. But, you better have a self-replication included in the new submission!