Conducting research should be easy. You think up a problem, dig up a little background information, conduct an experiment or two, analyze your findings, and type up your results. Pad your bibliography, and you’re done, right?

Wrong. Professor Andrew Van de Ven knows better. And as a researcher with decades of experience and more than 100 published articles, he tries to diffuse his knowledge among students in MGMT 8101: Theory Building and Research Design.

The keys to good research include staying on top of your field, engaging others, and communicating your findings. 

Research is not done in a vacuum

Proper research begins with finding the right initial question. “The saying goes ‘chance favors the prepared mind.’ But what is a prepared mind?” Van de Ven says. “In our case, it’s a person who is an expert in a subject area like leadership, organizational strategy, or entrepreneurship and reads and knows what research has been done on that subject.” And when that knowledgeable person comes across something in the field that is not consistent with her knowledge of the subject, that’s when the wheels start to turn.

“It’s that anomaly. That surprise. That’s the spark from which new ideas emerge,” he says. “In a way, new ideas are often shocks on the side of the head. So it’s not only chance favoring the prepared mind, but the mind being exposed to different things. Reading broadly across different journals increases the chances of running into surprises.”

Van de Ven says the whole point is to stay active in scholarship and research and making sure you stay engaged.

“I often use the analogy of a wood-burning fire,” he says. “Have you noticed the logs that die out are those that roll away from the fire? The logs that are close together, they have the energy and they have the flame. For us, we have to think of staying active and burning rather than falling away from the fire. Researchers or professionals who are disengaged are those who unfortunately become the dead wood, literally.”

The second and third steps of proper research directly follow the first step—developing alternative models or proposals that answer the research question and collecting the data to examine, compare, and test these alternative models. A well-stated problem goes a long way in keeping these two steps in check and lets a good researcher know just how far to take them.

Van de Ven does offer one tip: “You need to engage others. Most of us focus on ideas, problems, and questions bigger than ourselves,” he says. “We have to talk to people different than ourselves to understand different dimensions of the issues being studied.”

The last step in research is just as important as the first, but often neglected, Van de Ven says. And that is communicating the findings so that the research is used.

“The vast majority of research is not used for advancing theory or practice because most researchers do not engage in two-way communications with their audience; instead they only engage in one-way communications by writing a paper for some journal,” he says. “It’s amazing how much research has become careerist rather than focusing on the advancement of knowledge. One of the things I try to do in my course is instill the quest for knowledge rather than getting promoted in the job. It’s the wrong kind of motivation to do good research.”

Suitable for publication

Now that your research is done, it’s ready to be published. Merely submit it to an appropriate journal and wait for the presses to start rolling, right?

Wrong. “About 80 percent get rejected,” Van de Ven says.

Those who submit work to a journal usually go through two or three revisions, so it is at least two years from the time of initial submission to when your paper can get published. “It’s not unusual for a paper to take four years. Two years is the ideal,” Van de Ven says. “The part that takes the most time is this, by far. Because of the hoops you have to go through.”

The first round of revisions, based on points raised by peer reviewers, usually take four to six months. Subsequent revisions about three to four. “You have to sit there and respond to each of these points, along with revising the paper,” Van de Ven says.

Sometimes you may find that the reviewers are adjusting your meaning. “They will ask us to do things that weren’t our intention, so our message reflects their interpretations and interests,” he says. Other times, you may find yourself scooped. “When you start to do these rewrites and submits, there is bound to be a similar paper in the pipeline, so in that sense you are getting scooped. So you’ll be asked to cite this other paper,” he says.

Even worse, after all the tweaking and rewrites, the journal may end up rejecting your paper anyway. Then, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over. “People normally send a paper to a top journal. If you get rejected, you go to the second journal, then go to the third journal, and so forth,” Van de Ven says.

But the bottom line is that most everyone, including professors, hates to be criticized. “There is a natural tendency to emotionalize this,” Van de Ven says. “You like to say this is dispassionate—it is simply a good argumentation. But you put your heart and soul into a paper. When you start receiving criticism, it hurts. I think that is true in most every occupation. I don’t think everyone likes receiving negative feedback. But it’s feedback in order to learn.”