I wouldn’t ordinarily be making two posts in one morning, but I had news that was so great I wanted to shout it to the world. A paper that I have been working on for six years has just this morning been accepted for publication, and it’s going to run in a top international academic journal. Holy crap, I never thought I’d see this day.
The paper in question involved a real “Eureka” moment for me. In the context of executing a different research project, I had a question. Well, many questions, like “What the hell was that reviewer thinking?” and “Why does my co-author take two weeks to answer an e-mail?” and “What in God’s name ever made me think it was a good idea to do this?” But I don’t mean those questions. Those questions arise during pretty much every research project on the planet.
The question that arose for me was another research question. The project to answer Question 1 (which was in itself an interesting matter) lead to the burning desire to get an answer to Question 2. This is great when this kind of thing happens. In Business Land, we refer to this effect as “creating synergies” – and while this term is mainly blown out like snot from the nose of some corporate policy wonk, it actually does mean something real from time to time. This was one of those times.
The typical approach when one conceives of a Research Question is to head directly into the relevant academic literature to find answers to other important questions, like “Has someone already done this?” and “Has anyone done anything similar to this such that I can springboard off of their approach?” and “If no one has done it, does there seem to be a good reason why?” This stuff comes under the general heading of “literature review”.
My literature review yielded answers of “No” to all three of these questions…which meant that 1) I was asking a question no one had considered asking before, or if they considered it, they didn’t get very far with it, and 2) not only was there no well-marked path to follow, but there wasn’t even really a deer track, or a squirrel track, or a promising opening in the underbrush of the intellectual jungle. This is bad news, and it’s good news. The good news is that I was in a position to Advance The Frontiers of Knowledge (a term that gets a huge amount of lip-service in my academic field) and that I wasn’t evidently going to have a lot of competition in my effort. The bad news was that I had no idea where to start, and that because I am an accounting professor I could expect an up-hill battle. Most accounting professors (not all, but most) have spent time doing actual accounting. Usually, in a professional sense. And lots of us, although not me, are Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). And here’s the thing about CPAs and Accountants: this is not a profession that generally comes to mind when one contemplates subjects such as Innovation and Creativity. I could go on, but I’m pretty sure that this would be belaboring the point. The short story is that accounting professors as a group – like groups of researchers, groups of reviewers, groups of promotion and tenure committees – aren’t exactly known for embracing the Exotic and Interesting.
As I said, I Am Not Your Father’s Accounting Professor. Fortunately, neither is my husband, and neither are most of the people I work with right now, and neither was my dissertation committee. It’s not all accounting professors…but getting them into packs definitely enhances the underlying Cultural Value of Conservatism. It is a cultural value, too – conservatism is a subject that is introduced in Chapter 1 of every Intro to Accounting textbook on the market. Well, maybe Chapter 2. But everyone gets normed with this in the first couple of weeks of class.
So…asking a totally brand-new question, and one that requires a brand-new approach, is not something that is going to be Celebrated in the Halls of Accounting Academe. No one’s going to roll out the red carpet for this. They’re more likely to erect a nine-foot-tall electrified fence with big fat rolls of concertina razor wire at the top. In short, it means a long, hard, uphill, and possibly fruitless battle ahead.
I know this from my dissertation (see comment about committee, above) which was the last time I entertained a Stroke of Research Genius. Obviously, I am not a quick learner, or I would have drowned my Brilliant Little Idea at birth. I should probably note, in both of these projects – my dissertation, and this latest one – my husband saved the day by refusing to give up and let me deep-six these projects after only three years of agony and frustration. He is the White Knight responsible for turning a great paper into an actual publication. I owe him for this.
Back to my question. Nothing in the literature, nothing in the public domain, basically a complete tabula rasa…and the biggest problem was that not only was my little question a highly innovative one, it was tied into a Big Picture question that was equally highly innovative (e.g., I was completely alone in the field). So the first order of business, after determining that I wasn’t replicating work, was to decide how to proceed with my inquiry. Thanks to the Highly Innovative Big Picture question, there was also no clear route to investigation. I had a question, and no notion at all on how to go about answering it.
This is not a small statement, either. One of the hallmarks of my research stream is that I’m comfortable and competent in what is, for my field, an unusually broad range of methodological approaches. I’m not the guy who has a hammer and thinks everything is a nail. I’m the guy who has the tool set that is so big we had to get a four-foot-high chest on wheels to handle it. So for me to say “I didn’t have a useful tool” is really saying a lot.
I spent about eight months in that state, too. It was like having a mosquito bite right between your shoulder blades. And then, one day, in the shower, as I lathered up my head with shampoo, the Light Came On: I realized exactly how I could and should proceed with my inquiry. It just came to me. And I very nearly erupted out of the shower, wet and covered with soap, to write it down just in case I somehow forgot it in the next ten minutes.
Like I said, a true “Eureka!” moment, tub and all.
That was six years ago. The last six years have featured Heavy Mental Lifting over details of implementation, agonizing research choices, painful writing processes, and even more painful editing sessions, and re-writing processes. Nothing about this project has been easy or painless. I’ve presented it in three different countries. I’ve submitted it and had it rejected at all the best journals – save one. I’ve let it gather dust in the drawer because just looking at the title of the paper was too depressing. I’ve made the decision to jettison the entire thing, and hope to forget the entire experience. And yet, Mr. Optimist, my spouse, would not cooperate in this Weird Little Academic Drama, and insisted on pressing the issue, because he Believed in me.
And, today, his Belief was vindicated. We got the letter that the paper had been accepted, as-is, on the second round, at a prestigious international business journal, ranked by the London Financial Times as the premier ethics-related journal in the world. I literally could not believe my eyes and ears. Six years, I have fought with this damned thing. Six years I have been haunted by it at irregular intervals. Six years it has plagued my existence. Six years, I have known that this paper was likely to be the best paper I had ever, and would ever, write. Six years.
Next time I get a Brilliant and Creative Idea, someone freaking shoot me.