Make sure you can be proud of it: An interview with Ann Langley
Interview with Ann Langley
Emerita Professor of Management
It’s a daunting task to write the introduction to an interview with someone who needs no introduction. It’s even more challenging when you have had the privilege of not only knowing this person, but of working – and learning a great deal – with her over the years. Maybe this explains why several weeks have passed between the moment when this interview was ready to be published, and today, when I actually share it on the blog. In spite of a few attempts, I hadn’t found the way I was looking for to present this interview with Ann Langley. Acknowledging Ann’s multiple contributions to our field and expressing my gratitude for all she taught me, intellectually, professionally and personally, felt near-impossible in a few sentences. A first version of this introduction was scribbled down in the notebook I keep on my nightstand, late one evening – only to be discarded the next morning. A second one lingered on my mind as I went on walks in my neighborhood; I mentally played with a few sentences for a while, but again, something in this opening did not work. I put the writing of this introduction on my to-do list… week after week. Then, I reached the point when I just could not stand the thought of waiting any longer, and felt that this introduction had to materialize. It just had. This feeling did not make it any easier. I forced myself to sit and stay in front of my computer. Staring at the blinking line in the document I just created, my mind started to wander. I revisited moments when I worked with Ann. I remembered the joy she always seemed to feel when considering empirical material. I smiled thinking about the fun and intellectual stimulation I had in meetings with her and other collaborators. I recalled the times when I witnessed her compose, live, perfect sentences as we were working on a text – a real master class in writing with clarity and elegance. And then my interview with her came back into my mind, echoing something I had already heard her say: just how fundamental the introduction and a good title are for her practice of writing. Then I knew that my introduction had to be about introducing Ann’s interview, but also about introductions in themselves. How for some, it’s the last thing that they write, while for others, like Ann, it is where it all starts. How difficult it can be to find that beginning, but how liberating it can be when you feel that you have nailed it, at least for a while.
Of course, there is much more in Ann’s interview than musings on the importance of introductions. Among the many reflections that I hope will stay with you and inspire you after reading this interview, one advice has resonated deeply with me: just how our writing represents us. Ann reminds us that caring about the quality of our writing and working at crafting our style are well worth the effort, and that it goes beyond good communication of our ideas. Writing may be difficult, but it can be a source of joy and an expression of who we are.
Let’s start with the beginning: how do you get your ideas?
I get many of my ideas from research experiences, so from data. So I’m working on a project where data is being collected for one reason but looking at these data raises another question which means that I start to think – oh, it would be interesting to look at these data in a different way and therefore I get other ideas. And because I am working on a huge variety of things, I’m always finding something new that might link with some other project. Most of my colleagues are doing the same thing so we exchange ideas that way. Something you come across in one context becomes useful in another all the time.
Since I have worked with you, I know a bit about how you approach data and how much fun you have in doing so, but how is it with the writing process? Do you get as many ideas – or different ideas – via the writing process?
Yes, I also get ideas by writing, that is true. However, I find writing extremely difficult. So at the same time, I put it off and procrastinate because I don’t know what I have to write and I can’t get it going. But then when it gets going, I enjoy it. But to get to the stage where you’re enjoying it, it takes a huge amount of effort and procrastination. But the act of writing itself is certainly generative of ideas.
How do start writing? Are you more of a linear writer, or do you start by building an outline?
Well, I always start with the introduction, and then I get stuck. So then I might draw something. Another thing that helps me write when I get stuck is that I will try to draw a table or something or I will make a diagram of some sort. So I write, get stuck, fiddle a little bit on a piece of paper and try to think about what’s coming next, and how it would move ahead and then I write a bit more. I rewrite what I’ve already written and work my way towards the end. But some a kind of control over the length has to take place when you’re doing that, because when you do start at the beginning it’s so easy to make the beginning so big that you never actually reach the end. There’s a kind of a management process that has to take place. Okay, is this of reasonable size? And very often when I’m thinking okay, how many “things” are there to write about, I end up having to chop one or two because the paper is getting too long.
But do you do that kind of chopping and tweaking as you go?
I try not to do it but I tend to do it. So every time I open the paper, I start at the beginning and read up to where I am – which is not a very productive way because you always end up changing something which probably could have been left as it was. But I need to remind myself of where I am to get into the paper again, and I suppose it’s a useful way to make sure that you’re consistent.
And this way of working with setting up the introduction first, it doesn’t mean that the introduction is not changing over the course of the process of writing?
No. It might change but it tends not to change a whole lot. It’s very important. What is the particular message of this paper? But I tend not to entirely rewrite the introduction. Things get set quite early on usually.
If you had to estimate the time you spend on each part of a paper, how much time would you spend on this introduction and, you know, the beginning or the framing of the paper?
I don’t know. I suppose not necessarily a huge amount of time. I might take quite a long time to get to actually doing it. But I’m not writing a plan during that time. I may spend a long time on the title. The title is very important. The title inspires me. The title has to have kind of a twist to it. That would be very important.
I also tend to mix up data analysis and writing as being part of the same process. With an empirical study, I tend not to do much final analysis until the data has been mostly collected. Although, when you have empirical study, there may be different kinds of writing products. It’s sometimes easier to write a descriptive paper as a first product, and that will not take me too much time and it won’t require too much deep thinking. And then as you move ahead to developing a theoretical contribution from your material, well then you have to do some more sophisticated thinking.
Another thing I would say is how structuring deadlines are in writing. If there were no deadlines, if there were no conference deadlines, I’m wondering if I would ever write anything. That really forces you to accelerate the process.
I just want to come back to something you just said a few minutes ago. You talked about that phase where you’re avoiding starting the writing. You called that procrastination, but could you also see this time as a creative moment? Yes, it’s unstructured and it’s uncomfortable, but maybe it’s needed for what comes out of it?
Well, I think there’s two parts to it. There’s the part where you’re reading. That is very enjoyable. And you feel you’re learning, you feel you’re making progress. When I’m reading for a paper, I tend to put things in piles. But then once I’ve done that, I often don’t know quite how to get to the next step, so I have another cup of coffee. I do some emails. I sit for a little while and try and write the title. I’m not very happy with it. Go and have another cup of coffee. And I think oh, I remember some paper that somebody told me about I should read so then I go and do reading. That’s nice. It’s comfortable. You feel you’re making progress but you’re not actually writing anything. And so I think you can very easily get lost in that – just read another paper.
I suppose that period might be helping, that period of sitting in front of a blank page until you can write that first paragraph… but I’m not sure. I can do this for three days straight, just messing about doing everything except what I need to do and then I pretend that I’m busy.
But you are.
Well, yes. I can find stuff to do that makes me busy. I am busy. But I just recently picked up a book by Wendy Belcher on “Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks”[i]She argues that it’s not that people are too busy to write, it’s that they make themselves busy in order not to write.
That’s a very important distinction.
Yes. So she suggests that it is myth that you need long blocks of time to write, but that instead, you should try to write something every day.
But is this something that you do, trying to write every day?
No. I actually can’t do that.
But you tried to do it?
I can do it if the paper’s “on a roll” – I mean when I know where it’s going. Once the paper’s on a roll, I can do it because then I know what’s coming next and I can do it. But in the period when I’m just trying to get going, no. I have to have a block of maybe two or three days and I know that the first day nothing will happen. I might read a few things.
What about the back end of the paper? Because this is something I think junior scholars struggle a lot with. You put a lot of effort in the literature review, your question, the framing, then you get to the data, the analysis, and then the energy is diminishing in the end and it’s tough. Do you feel that you have also that cycle towards the end and, you know, closing the loop?
The way I see an empirical paper is that there is a very important front end, then there’s the methods which is kind of descriptive of what you did, then the analysis is quite hard. And for me there are two parts to the analysis. There is the descriptive part and then there’s the interpretive part. That’s the hard part – the second order analysis and interpretation. That is where you are creating your contribution. That is hard and that’s probably the place where I would most tend to procrastinate again. I see a paper as something that has to be “broken.” What I mean is you don’t have it right for a long time, but at then at some point, you do have it. There’s a moment where the paper … you have no idea where it’s going, but then suddenly you do and essentially it’s done – it’s broken and it becomes easy to write.
But how do you know?
You just feel comfortable, because now you know what to do. Now you know how to finish it. It just has to be written. But before that point you don’t know. You don’t even know whether there’s a paper there.
And does this take the form of the ah-ha moment or it’s more of a feeling that develops over the writing process?
I can’t say exactly how it happens, but I suppose there is something like an aha moment. And it may often take the form of doing a table, and you can see all the boxes in the table and you think okay, now I just have to write it.
And in relation to when you are resubmitting a paper?
Oh, that’s the worst.
Because you might have had that feeling with the first version but then you get the reviews and so how do you deal with…
I don’t deal very well with reviews. But it varies. Sometimes you get nice things said to you in the reviews but then when you start to look at the actual things that they’re asking you to do and you see that it’s very difficult. I tend to go through a period where the only thing I can do is complain about the reviewers. When you’re rewriting, the really difficult thing is that you have created an object which you liked, which you thought was good enough, you were very happy to send it in, you’re reasonably proud of it. What the reviewers tend to do is throw the whole thing up in the air. They take your work of art and shoot holes in it. And then you have to pull it back together and make a better work of art. It has to be better. And the problem generally is that it’s not a question of just taking this part and changing it a little bit. The whole thing is out of whack because a well-written paper is integrated. You can’t just play with one little bit and satisfy the reviewers. A major revision is a very painful process.
Nevertheless, sometimes you feel – you don’t feel this until the very end – that the new paper is better than the old one. And that’s because the reviewers have shaken your paper up and got you to think it through and make it better. But it doesn’t make the process any less painful. So what is a good review? I’m not exactly blaming the reviewers here. I think that this is just the nature of the review process. They have complete freedom to throw your paper up in the air and they’re giving you a challenge which is to catch it in a way that makes it even better. If you do manage to catch the pieces they may have given you ideas which will improve it significantly. But I think that this is actually harder to do than to actually write the paper in the first place.
Well, this leads me to the question of collaborations. So do you enjoy collaborating? I know that you have a lot of collaboration and how do you view collaboration and especially in the process of writing itself?
Well, I’ve been very lucky because quite early in my career I met with some people with whom I have a very easy and enjoyable process of collaboration. My most frequent coauthor is Jean-Louis Denis and ever since the beginning, we had a very successful way of working together, because we’re highly complementary but different and I think that’s important. The difference is important, and the ability to communicate is important and he has different strengths from me and so we developed a way of working together which is very good. And what it means is that when you’re collaborating with somebody, you have to listen to the other person and they have to listen to you. Most of the collaborations I’ve had have been very enjoyable.
If we continue on collaboration, what do you enjoy the most about collaborating on a research paper?
Well, you just have a lot of fun. You have fantastic meetings. You throw ideas around. The meeting of minds generates ideas. It’s very generative. It also means that you share responsibility so you don’t feel the whole 100 percent of the weight is on you and at the same time your colleagues are pushing on the deadline. Having a collaboration is also a way of artificially creating deadlines. You can set up a meeting, and the fact that you know that you’re going to have to meet means you’re going to have to have done something by that date. It’s not a meeting with yourself which is very easily put off by having another coffee. But a meeting with other people to whom you’re accountable makes a difference, and so there’s a kind of hedonistic part to it and a very task-oriented part to collaboration which is productive.
Going back to something you said at the beginning of the interview, you have many projects on which you are working. I’m not asking this in a purely quantitative way but how many projects do you typically work on at the same time? Do you focus on one or are you working on many papers at the same time and if so how many in broad terms?
It’s a lot. Maybe ten or more sometimes. There would be papers which are in various stages of development. There might be things that I’m just starting. There might be things that I’m really working on intensively. There might be things that are in somebody else’s court and they’re working on it. There might be things that have gone to a journal and we’re waiting to get the response. There might be things that I have in R&R that I need to get back to. I try to say well, this week I’m going to work on that or set some time aside. But it is too many. I don’t want to let go of any that I’m working on because I’m kind of attached to them. What is unfortunate is that some of them tend to just fade away. If you’ve got too many, then some just fade away because at some point at least one person has to be motivated enough to move it forward.
One of the things that possibly happens because you have too many projects is that you never write anything for yourself on your own. I haven’t written anything substantial on my own with just my name on it for quite some time, and the reason is partly because I’m doing so many things with other people that it takes over my time.
But do you keep a notebook with ideas for your own paper that you see that you would like to work on by yourself?
Not really. At different periods in my career, I’ve had fantasy ideas where I would like to write a paper about “x” and I’ve either never done it or I’ve shared it with somebody and we’ve done it together. But yes, I have often had ideas about a paper which just faded away because I didn’t really have time to focus on it, and when your time structured by other commitments it’s very hard to focus on it. To bring ideas to fruition, you have to be really, really driven.
If we go to the actual act of doing writing, do you have any ritual with your writing, a special place you prefer to work, at home or at the office? When do you prefer writing? Are you a night writer, a morning writer?
I write at home – of course, recently there hasn’t been much choice on that because I am retired, and of course the Covid pandemic has added to that. But even before, I found it much easier to write at home than in the office. And I do it in the same place all the time, my sofa with my laptop. What are the most productive times? Probably in the afternoon because in the morning I’m procrastinating. But when I was working at HEC, I would set aside a few days and I would say I’m going to stay at home for three days this week and I’m going to make progress on paper “x” and there will be some intensive writing but also quite a bit of procrastination.
So you do a kind of time boxing?
Oh, yes, I do. Now I’m retired, I find it easier to get more than a day of protected time, but when I was teaching, it was really hard. But it was important in order to get things done.
Now, I have a bit of a tough question that’s tougher than the R&R question… how to do you handle rejections?
Well, I’m very disappointed, very disappointed. All rejections are hard, but perhaps the hardest ones are when you get a rejected R&R. And when I’m working with a younger colleague, I’m especially disappointed because the paper is probably more important to them than it is to me. I have one paper that did eventually get published, but prior to that it was rejected three times on the second round in three different journals. We were on the point of giving up at that point, but decided to give it one more try, and fortunately, it turned out to be the right one.
I find it very difficult to get going again after a rejection and the question is raised well, to what extent should we now rewrite the paper or just put the same paper in an envelope and send it off? And it’s so tempting just to do that because it’s so hard to do anything else. I talked about R&Rs and how tough those are to do, but without a promise that this is going to actually work, it is even harder.
Do you tend to show your drafts to people early or only when they’re completely finished and when do you know a paper is good enough to be sent to a journal? How much do you seek comments before you send something out?
I’m embarrassed to say that I tend not to look for comments from friendly reviewers before submitting a manuscript. I’ve always been like that. However, it depends on the coauthors I’m working with who may want to do that. The thing is that once you think you’ve got a good version that you think you are ready to submit, you actually don’t want to have too much more information about it because it’s just going to disturb you and force you to question things you saw as settled. I am not usually interested in hearing any more comments at that point. That said, usually an early version of the paper has already been to a conference or two before I submit it, and that’s probably enough. I wouldn’t want to send it around too many times.
On the other hand, I think that when you have a rejection or an R&R that is difficult, then getting a discussion going around the paper with others while it is still in some sort of limbo is a really excellent idea. I am very supportive of initiatives like the Montreal Organizations Writing Workshop where we do that with colleagues, or the OTREG group in the UK. When the paper is in a state of flux and before your ideas have gelled completely, it’s very helpful to let others take a look at it and at the reviews, to get some ideas about how to proceed. But when you do that, you do have to listen to your colleagues which can be hard… and then again, not all the ideas are right. So you have to be attentive, especially when everyone is saying the same thing, without losing your voice.
So are you saying that for you, there are better moments to get that kind of feedback?
Yes. I think it’s good to send early versions of a paper to conferences and get feedback before you submit it to a journal. But I’m not keen on sending my papers out for friendly reviews outside that, although I am very happy to give friendly reviews to others when they ask, which I suppose is a bit paradoxical. In a sense, I feel embarrassed about asking people to put their time on my paper, and perhaps I’m worried they might not like the paper which would be tough on my ego. There might also be a sort of implication that if they look at the paper well then, you know, you’re more likely to get it published because they might be one of the reviewers and I don’t really like that kind of thing. I tend to hold it close to my chest a little bit before it goes out.
Do you look at special issues or a call for papers for conferences and sometimes get inspired by those?
Often. This can be a great source of ideas, and an opportunity to bring others to fruition. For example, I have a couple of papers with Malvina Klag. In one situation, she wanted to write a paper on conceptual leaps, and had invited me to write it with her. We discussed doing it, but then I suddenly saw this special issue a couple of days later, in International Journal of Management Reviews, for review papers on research methods. So developing a conceptual leap is not exactly research methods in the usual sense, and the paper we were thinking of was not originally intended to be a literature review, which is what that journal publishes. But I thought well, wouldn’t it be nice – perhaps this could fit, and – very importantly, it would give us a deadline. So I wrote to the editor of the issue and asked if they’d be interested in this topic. They said, “Well, we could be, and we think that it might work.” So we wrote the paper for that special issue. It was a highly satisfactory arrangement because I don’t know whether we would have been able to find the outlet we wanted for this particular piece. It was a perfect match, a serendipitous match – which is the the story of my publishing career, actually.
In all the papers that you’ve written could you identify one or two that are your preferred, favourite papers and why, why is this paper especially close to your heart?
Well, I have one famous paper which is the “Strategies for theorizing from process data” paper[ii] which is in Academy of Management Review, and I’m very fond of that paper. It was an extremely positive experience from beginning to end. The entire writing and review process was positive – the writing just flowed naturally, and my husband read that paper when I’d written it and he said, “If you get this paper published it will be cited.” That was my most positive publishing experience ever. That was also a special issue on theory building. In fact, I would never have written the paper had it not been for that special issue – serendipity again. I got a conditional acceptance on the first round for that paper, which is very unusual. Bob Sutton was the editor and he was wonderfully supportive. Among other things, he said he liked the paper because it “had attitude.”
So that is one. If I look at other papers, some of those that I really like are not necessarily published in the most prestigious journals. With Chahrazed Abdallah and Jean-Louis Denis we have a really fun paper which I like a lot…
With a nice title. [Having your cake and eating it too: Discourses of transcendence and their role in organizational change dynamics[iii]]
Yes, the “cake” paper. I really like that paper. We had fun with that paper and I love presenting it because it’s a bit subversive. It’s about the dark side of “transcendence,” which is supposed to be such a good thing. Another one I like is the Power of Numbers[iv] with Linda Rouleau and Jean Louis in Strategic Organization. That was a great collaboration and we all had very complementary things to contribute to that. I learnt a lot by working with Linda, who has a completely different way of thinking from me. I actually like most of my papers, but perhaps the most memorable ones are those where I feel there was a surprising twist. In the “Power of Numbers” paper, the surprise was in understanding how one might succeed in gaining acceptance for the closing of hospitals on the basis of a very simple, and in the end, quite questionable number system.
If I were to ask you to what you attribute your success, what would be your answer to this question?
I don’t know if I’m really that successful. I fail more than I succeed, first of all. A lot of the successes – if I had any success – is luck. My most cited paper would never have existed if there had not been a special issue call to which this particular thing fitted at that time. I might never even have considered writing something like that if I had not been invited to – this is going back in history – to a conference which led me to think about this topic. The existence of that particular paper which is my excuse for success is an entire serendipitous chain of circumstances.
Would you say it’s lucky events or opportunities that you seized?
I guess you seize opportunities, and I guess at some point you have to write reasonably well. But I get rejected all the time, all the time. I often think that it would be so much fun to see people’s “shadow” CVs, that would include the submitted papers that were never published and the papers that everyone has reviewed. There’s a whole mystery out there about this process. The papers that were submitted that were rejected, that were recycled for other journals, and also that were reviewed… Of course, you can’t possibly do that. It would change the process to publish all that information. We can never know that. But there’s a lot missing to our understanding of the scientific process that we can never know about. And I also think that most people who publish a lot also get rejected a lot. They just submit more stuff.
What would be your advice for young scholars that are starting out in terms of writing?
I think that you have to develop your own style. You need to find yours, what works for you. I would say also that you need to have a portfolio of writing projects. You need to have at least one really, really strong piece that you would like to put into the top journal, and if that doesn’t work well, then you go to another one and you work hard at getting that piece into a top journal. But it is important not to neglect the possibility that there are other things that you could be writing for lesser outlets. However, there should not be too many of them because then, you can get distracted.
I would suggest watching out for the special issues. Go to small conferences where you’re going to meet people who are up on the literature that you are dealing with. Go to the places where there are communities that are talking about the same things that you’re talking about, so you’re talking to people who are doing similar things to you, get feedback from them, you give feedback to them and you are up to date.
Another thing… I have used Anne Huff’s book on Writing for Scholarly Publication[v] in my courses, and she has this metaphor of writing as “conversation,” and I think she’s absolutely right. However, I have a terrible time remembering it, that you have to be in a conversation. And I often think that I discover afterwards, you know, after something has been rejected that yes, of course: these are the people I should have been building more on, because they’re going to feel addressed by this but I haven’t really taken them into account. I think that that’s a very important lesson but it’s not always easy to do because you want to be distinctive. You have something you want to say, but you’ve got to instead try and build on others and take part in a conversation, and find a way to kind of slip into it, without losing your distinctiveness. A number of the times that I’ve been rejected have been because people have said well, but you know, other people have been working on this and you’re not part of the conversation. And recognizing the conversations also that you are dealing with. You can choose the wrong conversation, so choose a conversation where you have a chance to be listened to and heard because you know the people that are taking part in it. Go to lots of conferences. Use the conference as a way to stimulate your writing. Also, some people might not agree with me, but I would say, never pass up an opportunity. If somebody asks you to write a book chapter, write a book chapter. But four or five projects at a time is enough.
The truth is that there’s so much luck involved in writing and publishing the process that you have to have quite a few things out there to be successful. Quite unexpectedly, the things that you think won’t make it, make it and the things that you think are really good, don’t make it or take longer to get out there. Having a few things going means that you’re not dependent on just one thing. Another piece of advice… you can ride on your thesis for a while, but at some point you have to start a new project and so you need to think about that. At some point the thesis is done. And that’s a hard step, because it’s like thinking about another thesis.
Another piece of advice that comes from Anne Huff is to look at exemplars. I think that that’s right. I think that that’s very sound advice to see how people successfully write papers. Once you’ve done that you may decide that there’s someone’s style that you would like to emulate, but you need to do this carefully… the danger is that you can lose your own voice when you do that.
But are there any papers or authors that have inspired you or stimulated you to think differently about how you could write or structure a paper?
Many people have inspired me, although I am not sure I can reproduce what they do myself. I really like the way Linda Rouleau writes and how she does these deep dives into micro-incidents. When I wrote about temporal bracketing in the AMR 1999 paper, I was very much inspired by Stephen Barley’s work. Martha Feldman also does some wonderful very fine-grained analyses of processes. I’m impressed as well with Paula Jarzabkowski’s creativity in finding new ways to present and draw insight from huge amounts of data. So those writing styles appeal to me personally very much.
Other than that, somebody I could never possibly imitate but who really was an inspiration to me when I was a younger faculty member was Henry Mintzberg. But you know, there’s only one Henry… and he doesn’t write the kinds of things that we write now in our academic journals. But he taught me a lot about writing in general that is still useful today. I wrote a paper on decision making with him and with[vi] Pat Pitcher, Jan Saint-Macary and Elisabeth Posada. At the time, those three were doctoral students and I was a junior prof. What I learned in writing with him in particular is the importance of the craft of writing – specifically, what may seem at first sight like trivial things, like the sections being the same length, the titles of the sections being in some sense alliterative or at least using the same kind of phraseology. In other words, the art of constructing papers… he devotes a lot of attention to that and I learnt that with him. I didn’t realize before that you even had to do that. I thought that first I’d just put any old title as the title of the section but no, you have to think of how this title fits with that title and the other title, and it makes a difference to the way that people read papers. His writing very much inspired me and in the same sense, Kathleen Eisenhardt does a similar thing. I couldn’t write case study papers like she does, but I appreciate the equilibrium, the symmetry, the importance of explaining why also.
In both cases there’s an elegance in the form of the symmetry and then there’s a convincing aspect, a punchy side…
Yes, the elegance and symmetry, but also the rigor and insight. Over time, I think, I’ve learned things from them and from others too. For example, Denny Gioia has also developed a very rigorous and convincing approach to qualitative research that has been a great source of inspiration for many. But what I like about his work beyond the more well-known “data structure” diagram that everyone has appropriated, is his way of using quotes. He’ll take a paragraph and you’ll find that the quotes are all sort of embedded in it so that you can really see the story, but it’s almost in the words of the people in the setting, and then he’ll put more quotes in another table by the side. So his work or his work with colleagues is very convincing. And yes, from Linda’s work I’ve learned how to very finely analyze small things and make them relevant to big things which is pretty tough to do, but she does it very well.
Do you have some concluding remarks or things that we haven’t touched upon around the topic of writing that you would like to add?
I’ll just say one thing which bothers me and at the same time I feel that I don’t have a solution to it. It’s our obsession with theoretical contribution in qualitative research. On the one hand I buy it. I write reviews in which I say, “Where’s the theoretical contribution?” But on the other hand, I quite often think well, can every single person who writes a paper in every single journal be producing an entirely novel theoretical contribution? Another comment: “Your findings are not surprising” – does every paper have to be earth-shattering? I’m just thinking that we may have gone overboard with this in our field and that we should find a way to respect work which is thoroughly done and has enough spark that it is interesting to read. If someone else has said something somewhat similar about another setting, does that make it completely redundant? It’s cumulating knowledge. And it’s valuable. I’m a bit concerned that insistence on theoretical novelty sometimes pushes scholars into overcomplicating their theoretical arguments, when it is their story and setting that is really interesting. A lot of potentially pointless and rather painful academic angst goes into responding to reviewers in search of the “stamp” of an approved top-tier theoretical contribution.
Fortunately, we don’t have to write for AMJ and ASQ all the time. We can also write things which may be a little bit simpler, and a little less pretentious. Some of those can be quite fun like “Having your Cake and Eating it Too,” and the “Power of Numbers.” I personally think that those papers make really nice theoretical contributions, but my coauthors and I decided not to put them through the wringer of AMJ or ASQ. Nevertheless, we are proud to have them out there where they can be read and appreciated. I have had a lot of pleasure writing for more practitioner-oriented journals too. It’s a different form of writing but it forces you to think through how your ideas might be useful for practice. That can be rewarding in a different way. In other words, my message to young scholars would be to aim high – but also aim for diversity.
And finally, as an academic, whatever you write for whatever journal, even the lowliest in the impact factor league tables, make sure you can be proud of it, because someone might read it! In some sense it reflects your identity, and represents who you are.
[i] Belcher, W. L. (2019). Writing your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
[ii] Langley, A. (1999). Strategies for theorizing from process data. Academy of Management Review, 24(4), 691-710.
[iii] Abdallah, C., Denis, J. L., & Langley, A. (2011). Having your cake and eating it too: Discourses of transcendence and their role in organizational change dynamics. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24(3), 333-348.
[iv] Denis, J. L., Langley, A., & Rouleau, L. (2006). The power of numbers in strategizing. Strategic Organization, 4(4), 349-377.
[v] Huff, A. S. (1999). Writing for scholarly publication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
[vi] Langley, A., Mintzberg, H., Pitcher, P., Posada, E., & Saint-Macary, J. (1995). Opening up decision making: The view from the black stool. Organization Science, 6(3), 260-279.
Photo credits: HEC Montréal