Writing laudations or obituaries?

Illustrates how to ensure you get comprehensive coverage of an academic's work when writing laudations or obituaries

Although writing a laudatio or obituary will generate diametrically opposite emotions, in both cases it is equally important to get a complete overview of someone’s impact on the field. It is all too easy to be heavily influenced by a number of contributions that are well known to you personally, whilst forgetting the broader impact that the academic in question might have had.

Worked example: Sumantra Ghoshal

As an example of how to use Publish or Perish in writing obituaries (or review works outlining the impact of a scholar’s work) I will focus on Sumantra Ghoshal. His book Managing Across Borders with Christopher Bartlett, first published in 1989, was the inspiration for my own PhD work on control mechanisms in multinational companies and I was shocked to learn of his untimely death at only 55 in 2004.

The screenshot below - dating from early 2016 - clearly shows that Sumantra Ghoshal’s work has had an enormous impact on the field. More than 20 of his publications have generated more than 500 citations and eight of them generated more than 1,000 citations. In total, his work generated more than 55,000 citations, even though less than 20 years had passed between his first publication and his death. However, there are several other conclusions that we can derive from the Publish or Perish data.


Combining top scholarship with managerial relevance

The Publish or Perish data clearly illustrate Ghoshal’s fairly unique ability to combine rigorous scholarship with work that has managerial relevance. He has published a large number of very influential books and has published a large part of his work in more managerially oriented journals such as Harvard Business Review and Sloan Management Review.

However, at the same time, he has published in the very top journals in the field of Management and Strategy, such as the Academy of Management Review/Journal, Strategic Management Journal, Management Science, and Journal of International Business Studies. There are few academics that have combined rigor and relevance so successfully. Although I was already aware of this before running the search, the Publish or Perish analysis made me realize that even Ghoshal’s earliest work, a working paper on scanning behaviour by managers, had a practical slant. 

Fighting for a better world

Many academics and students will have been inspired by Ghoshal’s last article, published posthumously in the Academy of Management of Learning & Education. Entitled “Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practice”, it is a very dramatic analysis of the potential negative impact of academic theories.

However, I was unaware that Ghoshal’s interest in this topic was long-standing with his critique on transaction cost theory published in 1996. I was also unaware of another posthumous publication “Scholarship that Endures”, that appeared in a little-known research annual Research Methodology in Strategy and Management, published by Emerald publishers.

Even nearly a decade after its publication, there are only four citations to this paper and I can only assume most people are unaware of it. Hence, I am quoting the first paragraph of the article at length, in the hope that it will offer inspiration for current and future scholars:

“As academics, we collectively publish thousands of articles and hundreds of books each year. We spend a large part of our lives producing them, sacrificing, in the process, sleep, time with our families, reading things we want to read, seeing places we wish to see. Most of these books and articles soon vanish without a trace, helping us get tenure perhaps, but talking with them into oblivion very large parts of the best years of our lives. Few – very few – of the outputs of our intellectual endeavors endure. What is it that distinguishes scholarship that endures from scholarship that does not?” (Ghoshal, 2006: 1)

Incidentally, the Ghoshal commentary – provocatively titled “Of cakes, clothes, emperors and obituaries” referenced in this blogpost on his seminal work Managing Across Borders with Christopher Bartlett, is yet another undiscovered gem. I wish someone at London Business School would create a resource site with open access versions to all of his work so that he can continue to inspire young academics.

Serendipitous findings

As an aside, finding Ghoshal’s “Scholarship that Endures” article in Google Books also led me to stumble upon another article in the same volume of this research annual that is of substantial relevance to me (Bednar & Westphal, 2006). It deals with improving response rates when surveying corporate elites. It is another article that deserves far more attention than its meagre 2 citations seem to suggest it receives.

I therefore ran a search for articles published in this research annual (see screenshot, dating from early 2016) and discovered a large number of highly intriguing titles, often written by well-known scholars. However, most of these articles seem to have generated little interest so far, with only a few drawing more than 10 citations per year. It is exactly these kinds of serendipitous findings that are facilitated by Publish or Perish and Google Scholar.


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