What made my early work impactful?

Talks about the breadth of the audience and the importance of novelty and good titles in getting your work cited

My paper The persistent myth of high expatriate failure rates was first-ranked in the WAIB top-20 on research in global careers. I was therefore interviewed by Saba Colakoglu and Ha Nguyen, who came up with some great questions. This blogpost covers their sixth question in which they asked me why I thought my early work was highly cited.

What made your awarded papers impactful?

As it was so early in my career, I didn’t really think about whether my articles would be influential or whether they would be highly cited, I was happy enough to get them published. Thinking about it now, I think there might be several reasons.

Breadth of the audience matters

One might have been the fact that the topic of both articles appealed to several distinct audiences, not just the expatriate or global mobility literature. The 1995 myth of high expatriate failure rate article in the International Journal of HRM has definitely been cited by those interested in expatriate management. However, it has also found an audience in what is called the Science of Science, or the Sociology of Science, focusing on what drives referencing behaviours.

The Journal of World Business article Of Bears, bumblebees, and spiders was about the role of expatriates in controlling foreign subsidiaries. This meant that it wasn’t just of interest to those in the expatriate management field. It was also relevant for those working on the topic of HQ-subsidiary relationships in the International Business field, or even un the field of Organisational studies as the article was written in the context of control and coordination mechanisms.

Novelty counts: be the first to study something

Second, both articles were quite novel in the field. The failure rate article obviously had never been done before; I felt a bit like the little boy in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale pointing out that the emperor had no clothes on whilst everyone else was happy to pretend he had. Oftentimes in academic research you need naïve junior scholars who are not socialized into the current academic traditions to see things that others don’t see. And not having an academic background at all – I was the first in my wider family to go to university – I was certainly a bit naïve. And as I was never enrolled in a formal PhD programme nor received any PhD training, I was not socialized into the dominant academic culture either.

For the bears, bumblebees, and spiders article, I was probably the first to really study empirically how expatriates were used to control foreign subsidiaries. I did also integrate and recombine lots of earlier work, including work by German scholars that hadn’t been picked up before. So, my advice for PhD students and junior academics is that – although it might be a little risky and unpredictable – exploring new domains does help to ensure your work is influential. So don’t just do me-too studies. That doesn't mean that I discourage replications, these are important too (see: Replication studies: learning from failure and success). However, they do not necessarily get highly cited.

Memorable titles help people to remember your papers

Third, having a memorable title helps. The "persistent myth" title is obviously quite provocative and makes academics pay attention. The follow-up of my failure rate article was called: Are our referencing errors undermining our scholarship and credibility?  So that was even more provocative and was aimed directly at our own profession. For the Journal of World Business article many academics remember the "bear, bumblebees, and spider" title, even though they don’t remember its exact content.

I have used that trick in many of my other articles too. It is something I discuss in the session about crafting effective and memorable titles for the writing bootcamps that I run for Middlesex University. Here are some of the titles I have used in prior work.

Understand citation practices

Mostly though, please realise that citations can take a while to take off. Only a quarter of these articles’ citations occurred in the first 10 years, and there were as many citations in their top three years – which was 15 to 20 years after their publication – as there were in the first 10 years after being published.

Articles in the Social Sciences are not like articles in most of the Life Sciences and Sciences which see rapid increase in citations within 2-3 years of publication and are then superseded by more recent papers. They have a far more enduring legacy. That’s why I have also spent a significant part of my academic career researching citation analysis in the Social Sciences. But that’s a different story for a different time.

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