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.

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