Theory VS Practice – Academia’s dilemma

By James R. Stock; Fulbright-Hanken Distinguished Professor of Business & Economics; Distinguished University Professor and Frank Harvey Endowed Professor of Marketing, Muma College of Business, University of South Florida


The adage, certainly not new, for academicians, has been “publish or perish.” Of course, that phrase is not literally true, but it can be true professionally, especially for PhDs that become academicians. With more persons than ever before having terminal degrees, the competition to publish has never been greater. Even in those parts of the world where publishing requirement have not been thrust upon academicians, especially younger ones, the publishing requirements for faculty/staff have begun to increase.

On the surface, that orientation and greater emphasis on research that results in publications, is not a “bad” thing. The many disciplines of academe require new knowledge creation, and that typically occurs through research that results in publications. However, that’s theory! In practice, there seems to be a “dark side” to this phenomenon.

Some would argue that there are many more academic journals now than ever before. Certainly, that is true. At the same time, there are more academicians trying to get their research published in those journals. The reality is, the increase in the number of journals has not kept pace with the increase in the number of people trying to get published in those journals. So more people are competing to get their work accepted into those publications. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that not all journals are considered equal. There are “A-level” or premier journals, top-tier journals, “B-level” journals, academic versus practitioner journals, etc. The designations vary by university or college and there are no universally accepted standards. Academe tries to quantitatively “rate” journals, but the criteria vary (e.g., citation indices, acceptance rates).

So, what does all of this mean for academicians who have been taught throughout their studies and early career that you must “publish or perish”? Being practical, if an academician wants to get salary increases, reduced teaching loads, promotions to higher levels in the Academy, or other recognitions, they have to publish! But this is where a significant problem has begun to “rear its ugly head.” Are the articles being published “better” now than in the past? Are researchers trying to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or are they coming up with results that have significant impact on someone or something?

I teach a PhD seminar at my home university in the USA called “Marketing Theory and History.” It includes coverage of the philosophy of science, marketing history, and marketing theory development. When observing the history of marketing thought (which has implications for any discipline that utilizes or develops theory), the early theoreticians strongly believed that “good theory and good practice went together” (see Alderson 1957 and Hunt 1976). Over time, theory and practice have grown apart and now we see that in many journals, at least in those perceived as being of the highest quality by academicians, there is a lot of theory but not much practice or application. Is that a good or a bad thing? Likely, it’s like beauty—it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. Certainly, if one wishes to optimize their careers in term of salary increases, less teaching, promotions, etc. than the shift away from application or practice is not a problem. But what about those stakeholders that read those publications?

If the important stakeholders to a researcher are other academicians, than less reliance on practice and more reliance on theory is absolutely fine. If the most important stakeholders are practitioners, than application and practice are the most significant. But here’s the problem. Publishing articles in journals that are more practitioner-oriented and which would be read by practitioners, will not get a person the academic rewards that would be received by someone publishing articles in journals aimed primarily at other academicians and which contain mostly theory and little application.

Early in my career, when I would mention that I wanted to reach an audience that preferred practice and application to theory, some colleagues (and bosses) would say: “Why don’t you go into consulting; maybe academia is not the profession you should be in.” I didn’t take their advice and am still an academician after 40 years. However, to get the salary increases, reduced teaching loads, promotions and other recognitions that go along with being a successful researcher and publisher, I concentrated on writing more theoretical pieces. After I achieved a level of recognition, I shifted more towards researching and writing about practical and applied topics that had relevance to practitioners, but little relevance to most academicians. Don’t get me wrong, I have and will continue to recognize the importance of theory in marketing, business, logistics, supply chain management, humanitarian logistics, etc. In fact, I still try to do theoretical research whenever I can. WHY? Because some stakeholders want more and better theory, and others want more and better practice or application. It is possible for a person to do both. Remember this, one article published in Harvard Business Review or a similar journal, which are practitioner-oriented journals, will be read by more persons than will likely read all of your academic articles COMBINED!

For a final comment, let me say this: it is my personal sense (remember that convenience samples are not very accurate) that this orientation towards more theoretical research away from the applied perspective, is growing. I see it in my university and department as we have only four journals that “count” in the calculation of our teaching workload and are weighted the most in promotion and tenure decisions. Thankfully, the Journal of Business Logistics is one of those four. But the other three rarely, if ever, publish logistics or supply chain articles (which are my two major areas of research interest). For a young academician, early in their career, if they are in logistics or supply chain management, this places them at a significant disadvantage if they happen to be housed in a Marketing department. At my stage of career development, I have enough publications of the theoretical and practical/applied types, so I try to publish where most of my stakeholders will see my work. I currently emphasize applied research where the results will be meaningful to business people. I’ll do the occasional theoretical piece, but it will be old school, that is, good theory and good practice go together.

Bottom Line: Young academicians must decide for themselves which path to pursue. It is becoming more difficult to get the rewards that you seek if you emphasize application or practice. Theory is what the major, top tier or premier journals want. If you can do both types of research, great! If not, perhaps you might answer the question differently than I did many years ago: Perhaps you should go into consulting rather than stay in academia.