Question- vs. data- or relation-driven research

Some scholars tackle simple and high-level questions taking advantage of the explosion of new data. In so doing, they enjoy the first-mover advantages and citations. Other scholars network and try to be faster in grasping tastes of journal editors. Both approaches make the game easier to play, that is, make it easier to publish and get tenure and promoted. There is nothing wrong with these efforts. Scholars are playing by the rules of the game that are designed to incentivize them to explore new data that are worth attention and the topics that experienced researchers believe are important. But such data- and relation-driven research are not without costs. They are more likely to encounter competing work (i.e., personal cost) and be written in a hurry and thus of lower quality (i.e., profession-specific cost). Also, the social value and the real impact of knowledge research collectively create can be limited (i.e., social cost).

The social cost can be particularly large if the literature, or precisely scholars who lead the literature serving as journal editors, care little about it. Unlike the personal and profession-specific costs, which directly comprise utility functions of individual researchers and institutions, the social cost only conditionally makes its way into their utility functions. So, universities hire scholars who are capable of doing data- and relation-driven research faster than others while not sacrificing academic rigor much over scholars who do question-driven research, which may create greater social value yet with a lower chance of publication. Therefore, as long as the number of top journal publications stands as the single most important evaluation criteria and journal editors maintain their predominant influence over the direction of the entire literature, we bear the risk that scholars cater to the literature, not necessarily the society the (social science) literature are meant to ultimately cater to. We need to rethink about our publication system and the incentive it supplies to academic communities.

Job market paper: young vs. mature literature

Ph.D. students and junior faculty are discouraged to enter the mature literature. It is a crowded area where incumbents easily kill early-stage ideas. The probability of top journal publications is lower and so is that of getting tenure. They are instead advised to enter the young and growing literature where research demand is high and its supply is low. While the advice is entirely sensible, if one is confident enough to deliver new insights based on his or her unique experience and superior knowledge, why not jump into the mature literature? The literature is mature at least in part because it addresses import questions and also demands fresh brains to improve old, or outdated, thoughts.