Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 104, Issue 4, pp 499–524

Uncovering the Intellectual Structure of Research in Business Ethics: A Journey Through the History, the Classics, and the Pillars of Journal of Business Ethics

Authors

    • Department of MarketingBI Norwegian Business School
  • Boris Durisin
    • Department of Management and TechnologyBocconi University
  • Marco Ogliengo
    • McKinsey & Company Italy
Article

DOI: 10.1007/s10551-011-0924-8

Cite this article as:
Calabretta, G., Durisin, B. & Ogliengo, M. J Bus Ethics (2011) 104: 499. doi:10.1007/s10551-011-0924-8

Abstract

After almost 30 years of publications, Journal of Business Ethics (JBE) has achieved the position of main marketplace for business ethics discussion and knowledge generation. Given the large amount of knowledge produced, an assessment of the state of the art could benefit both the constructive development of the discipline and the further growth of the journal itself. As the evolution of a discipline is set to be reflected in the evolution of its leading journal, we attempt to characterize changes in the intellectual structure of business ethics through a bibliometric analysis of articles published in JBE. Specifically, we conduct a knowledge-stock analysis to assess the evolution, major trends, and current state of the journal. Additionally, we use citation and co-citation analysis to provide an accurate description of the content and the advancement of research in business ethics. Through the results of our analysis, we are able to: (1) pinpoint the characteristics of the growing stock of knowledge published by JBE over the years; (2) identify the most influential works on business ethics research; and (3) detect the formation and evolution of schools of thought in business ethics.

Keywords

Business ethicsCorporate social responsibilityEthical decision makingBibliometricsLiterature review

In 1982, the first year of its publication, the Journal of Business Ethics (JBE) was a quarterly journal, publishing about 11 articles per issue, the great majority (over 75%) sole-authored by North American researchers. By 2008, it had grown to 28 issues per year and published almost 3,800 articles, most of them written by multiple authors from different institutions, often from different countries. Today, JBE is one of the 40 journals used by the Financial Times to compile its business school rankings. It has proven itself the best and most influential journal in business ethics research (Albrecht et al. 2010; Ma 2010). As the leading academic journal, JBE plays an important role in setting the research agenda for the entire field.

Given the large amount of knowledge produced, an assessment of the state of the art is appropriate for constructive development of the discipline and for further improvement of the journal itself. Our work assesses the field of business ethics by analyzing the topics, the works and the authors appearing over time in the leading journal of the field, namely JBE. It is widely accepted that researchers tend to gather in “invisible colleges”—informal networks where common questions are examined with common frames (Burt 1977; Crane 1972; Price 1963). The “invisible colleges” constitute the intellectual basis on which a discipline develops and are largely revealed by scientific articles’ citations. By analyzing citation patterns we identify and focus on the works recognized as the most influential by the field. Specifically, we complete a bibliometric review of all articles appearing in JBE between 1982 and 2008. First, we conduct a knowledge-stock analysis to assess the current state of the journal and major trends. Second, we use citation and co-citation analysis to provide an accurate description of the content and evolution of research in business ethics. Analyzing citation patterns allows us to discover the conceptual roots of the field and to pave the way for future advancements (Culnan 1987; Culnan et al. 1990). Looking at co-citation patterns allows us to trace linkages among the most influential works, to explore subfields, and to determine the relationships, if any, among them and within them. We expose the “invisible colleges” within business ethics research and map its intellectual structure graphically, thus visualizing the distances between different pockets of intellectual activity and the directions along which the field evolved. The intellectual structure of a discipline is a structured representation of the knowledge produced in a given field on the basis of criteria like subject areas, research specialties, schools of thought, shared intellectual styles, or temporal or geographic ties (McCain 1990). By analyzing citations and co-citations, we map the intellectual structure of business ethics on the basis of changes in citation frequency (which works are cited more often over time), topic-related citation variety (the topics in relation to which the works are cited), and topic-related citation consistency (whether the works are constantly related to the same topic) (Durisin et al. 2010). Thus, we provide an assessment of the path along which business ethics has evolved, an overview of where it stands now, and useful insights as to what path it might take in the future.

Our results show a progressive maturation of research in business ethics. Initially, researchers were few, probably isolated, and contributing to a not yet legitimized academic field. Over the years, the journal gains recognition, the academic field acquires relevance, information technologies facilitate collaboration, and JBE’s authors focus on a broader array of ethical issues and a more pragmatic view of business ethics. Ethical sensitivities, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and moral theory are the dominant topics, even though relevant shifts in pattern of influence emerge as the field evolves. The analysis of citations and co-citations confirms a progressive maturation of the journal and the discipline. JBE’s authors gradually shift from citing mainly books covering a wide range of topics to referencing journal articles on the specific topic under study. Furthermore, a limited number of influential works has a substantial impact on the knowledge structure of JBE: four out of ten articles published in JBE contain at least one reference to one of the fifty most influential works. Recurring citation patterns exemplify the temporal evolution and maturation of the field; some works were extremely influential in the initial sub-periods, but were then substituted by more recent and methodologically more rigorous contributions. Despite the persisting challenge of collecting data on ethical issues, JBE’s articles exhibit growing methodological rigor. Particularistic motivations (Boyd et al. 2005) in citing authors and works in early stages do not persist over time. Moreover, works clustered close to each other in one period, in the subsequent period gain a cluster of co-citation profiles of their own, indicating increasing sophistication in the analysis of specific bussiness ethics issues. In sum, our analysis shows how JBE publications become more rigorous, how topics emerge and become dominant, how some topics are parceled out in ever finer grained topics, and, finally, how business ethics comes ever closer to become an academic discipline in its own right.

By describing the intellectual structure of business ethics research our work contributes to the field in several manners. By supplementing and expanding the results of previous similar studies (Collins 2000; Ma 2010), our findings contribute to the theoretical advancement of business ethics by providing a comprehensive assessment of its evolution, and by identifying the classics of the discipline. Particularly, our findings point toward two important achievements: a strong maturation of business ethics as an academic field, and an evolution from its exclusive focus on the philosophical discussion of moral principles to a more pragmatic interest in managerial and performance implications of ethical choices.

Additionally, our study contributes to the consolidation of JBE as the leading journal in the field. Our analysis of JBE’s knowledge stocks and citation patterns offers a thorough overview of JBE’s history and of the scientific community that contributed to its development. Thus, we are able to provide conclusions about JBE’s positioning in the academic community, and suggestions for potential actions aimed at further improvement.

Finally, our results provide some indications about the alignment between academic research and managerial issues in business ethics. Although the findings suggest a good fit especially in recent years, we point toward the challenge of creating a research agenda that evolves together with managerial problems and takes into account the increasing interdisciplinary nature of business ethics.

The reminder of the article is organized as follows. First, we discuss previous review studies in business ethics and explain how our bibliometric study can improve and complement their findings. Second, we conduct a short examination of bibliometric studies in different disciplines to elucidate the merits of the bibliometric approach. Third, we briefly illustrate our methodology for knowledge stock, citation, and co-citation analysis. Fourth, we present and discuss our results. Finally, we make some conclusions on the state of business ethics as an academic discipline, discuss some limitations of our bibliometric approach, and suggest directions for further research.

Previous Review Studies in Business Ethics

After almost 30 years of research, business ethics has already become the subject of review articles. Our bibliometric analysis of business ethics’ intellectual structure complements and extends the findings of previous reviews both in breadth and objectivity. Specifically, our study re-examines business ethics research but “using statistical tools and methods that are more advanced than those used in prior studies” (Colquitt and Zapata-Phelan 2007, p. 1286). Most existing reviews generally cover one specific area of business ethics, and uses subjective and narrative approaches in selecting and organizing the reviewed contributions.

Several narrative reviews were produced in the area of ethical decision making (e.g., Ford and Richardson 1994; O’Fallon and Batterfield 2005; Tenbrunsel and Smith-Crowe 2008; Trevino et al. 2006), and CSR (Aupperle et al. 1985; Griffin and Mahon 1997; McWilliams and Siegel 2000; Wartick and Cochran 1985; Wood 1991). Though these studies made an invaluable contribution in clarifying what we know in both sub-fields, their findings are often inconclusive in identifying relationships and inconsistent in specifying the most influential articles to take into account when offering an overall portrait of a discipline. Meta-analytic studies (i.e., Kish-Gephart et al. 2010; Orlitzky et al. 2003) helped in overcoming the first criticism, by providing conclusive results on relevant causalities. For example, in their meta-analysis on the relationship between CSR and financial performance Orlitzky et al. (2003) show that corporate virtue in the form of social responsibility and, to a lesser extent, environmental responsibility is likely to generate higher financial performance. However, the heterogeneity and relative shortage of quantitative studies in business ethics make it difficult to assemble a sufficiently large sample of articles for a meta-analysis.

Bibliometric studies have the potential of improving qualitative reviews by providing an objective and consistent selection of most influential works in business ethics issues. In fact, bibliographic references cited in journal articles are a reliable indicator of influence. While bibliometric studies are not a substitute for extensive reading of the literature, they can objectively identify the most influential works and their relational links over time, thus providing a clear and unbiased starting point for qualitative reviews.

Our bibliometric analysis complements and expands the findings of previous bibliometric studies in business ethics (Collins 2000; Ma 2010) in two ways. First, we extend the frame of study; our analysis covers 27 years of research in business ethics, while Collins (2000) analyzes 18 years and Ma (2010) 10 years. A broader time span enables a more precise identification of the pillars of a discipline and a more distinctive recognition of the evolutionary patterns. Second, we differentiate from previous bibliometric work (Ma 2010) by analyzing the citations of all JBE articles rather than the citations of a set of articles selected through a keyword search. Ma’s (2010) study presents a unique contribution to a better understanding of the field; in fact, the results are partially consistent with our findings. At the same time, keyword-based analysis can be biased by subjectivity in selecting keywords and establishing the boundaries of the discipline. A keyword search is set to retrieve works from different functional areas, which might not always clearly belong to the field under study. Grouping references based on a keyword search could dilute relevance; the results might generate confusion on really influential works in the domain. By their nature all articles published in JBE address business ethics issues; therefore, we strive for minimizing the subjectivity bias and its consequences by analyzing the citations of all works published in the leading publication of the field.

Background of the Study: Bibliometrics for Analyzing Knowledge Domains

Bibliometric analysis is attractive because it is unobtrusive and objective (Garfield 1979). Therefore, to escape the traps of subjectivity we conduct our analysis of business ethics research by using bibliometric techniques, namely a set of tools for the mathematical and statistical detection of patterns in the publication and use of academic articles (Diodato 1994). The popularity of bibliometric studies is mainly due to the intrinsic characteristics of the raw data. Under the assumption that authors cite more frequently works truly influential in the development of their own research, the number of citations received by a study can objectively highlight the most relevant contributions to a research field (Culnan 1987; Tahai and Meyer 1999). Moreover, co-citation analysis assesses how often contributions have been cited together. Under the premise that authors repeatedly cited together belong to the same school of thought, co-citation analysis can highlight content similarity among influential studies in a research field (Culnan 1987).

Among the methodological options for an evolutionary study, bibliometric approaches have received growing attention in various areas of management research. There are examples of bibliometric studies in information systems (Culnan 1987; White and McCain 1998), innovation (Biemans et al. 2007, 2010), organizational studies (Culnan et al. 1990; Üsdiken and Pasadeos 1995), marketing-related subjects (Hoffman and Holbrook 1993; Pasadeos et al. 1998), operations management (Pilkington and Liston-Heyes 1999), and strategic management (Ramos-Rodríguez and Ruíz-Navarro 2004; Tahai and Meyer 1999).

JBE was born in the first decade after the birth of business ethics as an academic field, which business ethicist Norman Bowie places in 1974 (De George 2005); the evolution of the journal is, therefore, reflective of the evolution of the most productive years of the discipline. Resting upon the assumption that citations represent a reliable indicator of influence, and that the similarity of citations between two articles is a reliable indicator of their similarity, bibliometric analysis is a valuable approach to discern the most influential contributions, to trace their relationships, and to portrait the intellectual evolution of business ethics research, as seen in JBE. We suggest that after a quarter of a century of rapid JBE growth, an evolutionary study is in order.

Methodology

Previous studies corroborate our choice of JBE as the most representative journal for tracing the intellectual evolution of business ethics. Ma (2010) found that JBE is by far the most cited journal in business ethics in the time span considered in his study. Albrecht et al. (2010) noted that JBE is not only the most cited publication, but also the most prestigious according to the perceptions of business ethics scholars. Our study confirms that JBE is by far the most cited publication in JBE (Table 1). This partially compensates for the potential bias of using a single source for selecting the articles included in this study.
Table 1

Journal citation frequency

Cited journal

Citations received

Relative frequency (%)

Journal of Business Ethics

13,814

18.8

Academy of Management Review

3,117

4.2

Academy of Management Journal

1,809

2.5

Business Ethics Quarterly

1,476

2.0

Journal of Marketing

1,330

1.8

Harvard Business Review

1,265

1.7

Journal of Applied Psychology

1,078

1.5

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

855

1.2

Administrative Science Quarterly

787

1.1

Other journals cited

47,999

65.3

Total cites to journal’s articles

73,530

 

In our study, we analyze all articles, authors, and cited references in JBE between 1982 and 2008. To partially deal with the issue of the number of citations being linked to articles’ age, we gather the data in June 2010, almost 2 years after the publication of the last JBE’s issue included in the analysis. We divide the time span into four eras: 1982–1989, 1990–1996, 1997–2002, and 2003–2008. We undertake three types of analysis: knowledge-stock analysis, citations analysis, and co-citation analysis.

First, we conduct a knowledge-stock analysis (Biemans et al. 2007) to assess the current state of the journal and major trends: articles are classified according to subject area and research goal (empirical research, theoretical essays, etc.); authors are analyzed in terms of institutional affiliation, productivity and influence (citations). All journal articles are analyzed one by one and manually classified by one of the authors. For identifying the subject areas, we adapted the classification proposed by Collins (2000). To ensure the reliability of the classification, a second author reclassified a random sample of 10% of JBE’s articles. In more than 85% of the cases, there was a perfect agreement between the two authors. We use one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) with post-hoc Scheffé tests to determine the statistical significance of the difference of means by era (Biemans et al. 2007).

Themes uncovered by knowledge-stock analysis are further investigated by citation and co-citation analysis. Together, the two methodologies provide an accurate description of the contents and the evolution of research in a field (Ramos-Rodríguez and Ruíz-Navarro 2004). Citation analysis simply counts the number of times an article is cited over a period of time. Citation frequency can be regarded as a proxy for an article’s influence on a field, as frequently cited works are likely to be more influential on the development of future research (Culnan 1987; Tahai and Meyer 1999). By dividing the overall period into four sub-periods, we can understand the changes in citation frequency for each period, thus obtaining an impression of the changes in influence for each period.

Co-citation analysis focuses on the frequency with which pairs of articles are cited in the same article (White and Griffith 1981). The co-citation frequency is a measure of similarity between pairs of articles and provides the data for mapping the intellectual relationships within a field. The first step is the construction of a co-citation matrix for highly cited articles identified through citation analysis. The co-citation matrix is a square, symmetrical matrix in which each cell contains the number of times highly influential articles are cited together. The main diagonal is left empty, as there would be little sense in counting the amount of times that a certain work has been cited contemporarily with itself (McCain 1990; Ramos-Rodríguez and Ruíz-Navarro 2004).

From the co-citation matrix, we then calculate the similarity matrix using Pearson’s correlation coefficient (r-Pearson) (White and McCain 1998). Using r-Pearson yields two benefits. First, for each pair of works, r-Pearson measures not the frequency with which the two works are co-cited, but the similarity between their co-citation profiles and those of the remaining top-cited articles: two works that are always co-cited along with a third, but rarely with any others, will have strong positive correlation, thus suggesting that the citing population recognizes a certain relationship or similarity between the two. Secondly, the correlation coefficient overcomes differences of scale between a work that is highly cited and other very similar ones less frequently cited. Scale differences between two works would limit their possibility of being frequently co-cited, and could erroneously lead the researcher to exclude the pair from further consideration independently from the overall co-citation profile similarity. Using the correlation coefficient instead of the co-citation frequency reduces this risk.

The r-Pearson correlation matrix is used to map the intellectual structure of business ethics research. In graphic terms, we construct a two-dimensional graph in which the distance between two points is inversely proportional to the strength of their r-Pearson—hence, their perceived similarity (McCain 1990). We use multi-dimensional scaling (MDS) to set out the results in the readable graphic format described above. MDS is a procedure for creating visual representations of the similarity between a set of objects on the basis of similarity measures. In this study, the r-Pearson correlation matrix is used as an input for MDS, and the MDS outcome can be regarded as a spatial map of the intellectual structure of business ethics. MDS does distort original distances between works within the data set, as it cannot account for the full variance resulting in the similarity matrix, but is necessary for the sake of interpretive feasibility (Ramos-Rodríguez and Ruíz-Navarro 2004).

Results

We first discuss the results of the knowledge-stock analysis. Then, we explore how the influence of business ethics works has evolved over time and which works are clustered with each other in shaping the intellectual structure of business ethics.

Knowledge-Stock Analysis: Journal Characteristics

As a first outcome of the knowledge-stock analysis, we derive some descriptive statistics for JBE’s four sub-periods (see Table 2). The first part of the table shows descriptive statistics at volume level.1 From 1982 to 2008, a total of 3,793 articles were published including editorials and book reviews. The first period comprises 593 articles published from 1982 to 1989; the second a total of 762 articles published between 1990 and 1996; the third 1,022 works published between 1997 and 2002; and the fourth 1,416 articles published from 2003 to 2008.
Table 2

Journal descriptive statistics for four eras

 

Era 1

1982–1989

Era 2

1990–1996

Era 3

1997–2002

Era 4

2002–2008

Significance

Part 1: volume descriptives

 Articles per volume (#)

74.1

108.9

39.3

33.7

3, 4 < 1 < 2***

 Cross-institution collab. per vol (#)

3.8

6.9

9.8

12.4

1 < 4***

 Countries represented per vol (#)

6.8

11.3

10.3

12.2

ns

 Volumes per year (mean)

1

1

4.3

7

Part 2: issues descriptives

 Articles per issue (#)

11

9.3

8.7

9

1 > 3, 4***

 Sole-authored articles per issue (#)

8.3

5

4.5

3.5

1 > 2, 3, 4***; 2, 3 > 4***

 Sole-authored articles per issue (%)

75.7

53.8

51.7

38.8

ns

 Cross-institution collab per issue (#)

0.6

0.6

2.2

3.3

1, 2 < 3 < 4***

 Cross-institution collab per issue (%)

5

6

25

37

1 < 4***

 Multi-country articles per issue (#)

0.1

0.2

0.5

1

1, 2, 3 < 4***

 Multi-country articles per issue (%)

1

2

6

12

ns

 Issues per year (Mean)

6.8

11.7

19.7

26.3

 

Part 3: article descriptives

 Authors per article (#)

1.3

1.6

1.7

1.9

1 > 3, 4***

 Pages per article (#)

7.9

9.1

12

13.6

1 > 2, 3, 4***; 2, 3 > 4***

 References per article

15.8

24

35

44.7

ns

 Total number of articles published

593

762

1022

1416

1, 2 < 3 < 4***

Cell entries represent means per era (based on means per volume, issue or article, depending on the section in the table). Statistical significance of the overall difference was assessed by means of ANOVA. Inter era differences were tested using the post-hoc Scheffe’ test. P < .01 except where ns

The high number of sole-authored articles in the 1980s might indicate that the first researchers were few, probably isolated, and contributing to a not yet legitimized academic field. These few authors found it hard to collaborate (only 5% of articles per issue were born from such collaborations) given obvious logistic difficulties of the time; those who collaborated, did so within the same country and institution. However, over the years the journal gains recognition, the academic field acquires relevance, information technologies facilitate collaboration, and JBE’s authors embrace a broader array of ethical issues and a more pragmatic view of business ethics. We find that all indicators change: sole-authored articles drop to less than 40% in 2003–2008, cross-institutional collaborations increase to 37%, and international collaborations go from 1% in 1982–1989 to 12% in 2003–2008. The statistics at the article level confirm a significant increase in the number of authors per article from 1.3 in 1982–1989 to 1.9 in 2003–2008 (a 46% increase).

Figure 1 and Table 3 provide further information on JoBE articles’ authorship. As shown in Fig. 1, overall there is a clear prevalence of authors from North American institutions. However, North American dominance declines from 88 to 50% over the four periods. European authorship experiences a steady increase from an initial 2% to over 15%. Moreover, research in business ethics is progressively embraced by institutions from China and the Asian-Pacific area.
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs10551-011-0924-8/MediaObjects/10551_2011_924_Fig1_HTML.gif
Fig. 1

Authorship by country

Table 3

Institutions contributing most frequently to JBE during 1982–2008

Top ten institutions

Articles

North America institutions

Articles

Rest of the world

Articles

1. Loyola University

54.8

1. Loyola University

54.8

1. IESE University of Navarra

30.3

2. St Johns University

46.3

2. St Johns University

46.3

2. Erasmus University

23.4

3. York University

43.4

3. York University

43.4

3. University of Nottingham

18.3

4. University of Guelph

37.5

4. University of Guelph

37.5

4. Chinese University of Hong Kong

14.2

5. De Paul University

37.0

5. De Paul University

37.0

5. Hong Kong Baptist University

12.3

6. University of Notre Dame

33.8

6. University of Notre Dame

33.8

6. Tilburg University

11.8

7. University of Texas

31.4

7. University of Texas

31.4

7. Monash University

9.5

8. IESE University of Navarra

30.3

8. University of Mississippi

29.4

8. National University Singapore

9.5

9. University of Mississippi

29.4

9. University of Wisconsin

28.2

9. Massey University

9.5

10. University of Wisconsin

28.2

10. Bentley College

26.7

10. University of Ghent

9.3

Note Fractions result from multi-author articles. Each author is treated as an equal contributor

An analysis of top contributing institutions (Table 3) confirms the dominance of US and Canadian institutions. The only European university appearing in the overall Top 10 is IESE University of Navarra, in Spain.

In Table 4, we analyze JBE’s most productive authors and include all authors with more than ten articles published in JBE. These 24 authors account for 320 of the 3793 JBE’s articles analyzed. Some of these prolific authors have not only made significant contributions in terms of knowledge stock, but have also been highly influential in shaping subsequent research. For instance, Scott J. Vitell is not only the most productive author, but also one of the ten single authors most cited in JBE’s articles.
Table 4

Most prolific authors in JBE

Author

Publications

Lead-authored publications

Sole-authored Publications

Total citations of JBE articles

First publication

1. Vitell, Scott J

35

19

2

769

1987

2. Giacalone, Robert A

20

10

2

163

1987

3. Primeaux Patrick

19

13

6

40

1991

4. Michalos, Alex C

17

16

15

39

1982

5. Argandona, Antonio

14

13

13

83

1995

6. Ts alikis, John

14

14

0

223

1988

7. Werhane, Patricia H

14

13

10

79

1985

8. Singhapakdi, Anusom

13

10

1

171

1991

9. Pava, L Moses

12

11

8

89

1996

10. Sims, Ronald R

11

10

5

276

1991

11. Sirgy, Joseph M

11

7

3

91

1996

12. Valentine, Sean R

11

10

0

84

2002

13. Dunfee, Thomas W

11

6

2

124

1988

14. Mele, Domenec

11

10

7

44

1989

15. Shaw, Bill

11

8

7

55

1988

16. Hoffman, Michael

11

7

4

61

1982

17. Nielsen, Richar P

11

11

10

70

1984

18. Small, Michael W

10

9

8

52

1992

19. Husted, Bryan W

10

10

6

121

1993

20. Deshpande, Satish P

10

7

3

145

1996

21. Bishop, John D

10

10

10

10

1990

22. Rawwas Mohammed YA

10

6

1

194

1991

23. Carson, Thomas L

10

10

7

69

1982

Knowledge-Stock Analysis: Research Goals and Topics

As a second outcome of the knowledge-stock analysis, we classify JBE’s articles according to two criteria: research goal and subject area. As to the first criterion, we distinguish between conceptual (essays, model building, reviews, and theory development) and empirical (secondary data, interviews, field study, surveys, and model testing, etc.) articles. As to the second criterion, we categorize articles by topic on the basis of the classification already used by Collins (2000). Topics include:
  • Ethical sensitivities, namely articles dealing with ethical decision making, different sensitivity to ethical issues, and individual ethical perceptions.

  • Corporate culture and human resource practices, namely articles dealing with business ethics and the workplace, corporate culture, corporate policies, corporate codes of ethics. Many articles dealing with work climate are actually testing the effects of work environments on individuals’ ethical sensitivities: in this case the article was classified under both categories.

  • Corporate social responsibility (CSR), namely articles dealing with “such diverse notions as business ethics, corporate responsibility, corporate citizenship, sustainability, environmental responsibility and corporate philanthropy” (Van Liedekerke and Dubbink 2008, p. 275). Numerous articles discuss the role of the firm in society or its relation to stakeholders without making explicit mention of the term CSR; these articles were classified as CSR nonetheless.

  • Business ethics and education, namely articles discussing methods and tools for teaching business ethics, or articles on the implications of ethics courses in the academic curriculum.

  • Moral theory, namely articles discussing the theoretical foundations of business ethics or the intrinsic morality of a given issue.

  • Marketing and advertising, namely articles on the morality of marketing practices or marketing managers.

  • Accounting and finance, namely articles on the morality of accounting practices, of accountants, or of the financial world; popular topics are, for instance, insider trading and accounting frauds.

Figure 2 summarizes the results and shows the dominance of three topics: ethical sensitivities, CSR and moral theory. Specifically, in the first 8 years of JBE the dominant topic is moral theory, which then undergoes a steady decline as the field matures. During the second period of JBE, there is a sudden rise of interest in ethical sensitivities, whose dominance persists over the third period. The contemporary era is dominated by academic discussions on CSR. However, this recent trend does not cause articles on ethical sensitivities to decline significantly. The trends will be further analyzed in the following section and through our bibliometric analysis.
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs10551-011-0924-8/MediaObjects/10551_2011_924_Fig2_HTML.gif
Fig. 2

Evolution of articles’ topics in JBE

Further insight is offered by the data on articles’ research goal, as shown in Fig. 3. Conceptual articles dominate the field for both the intrinsic theoretical nature of business ethics and for the difficulties in collecting empirical data on ethical issues. The proportion of conceptual articles diminishes greatly from the first period to the second one, coinciding with the initial substantial reduction in moral theory articles. The increase of empirical articles corresponds to the rise of articles on ethical sensitivities. As further shown by the bibliometric analysis, research on ethical sensitivities ensued in several conceptual frameworks for illustrating the complex issue of ethical decision making. Many works published in JBE are an attempt to test these frameworks (or part of them), and contribute to enforcing the empirical grounding of the field.
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs10551-011-0924-8/MediaObjects/10551_2011_924_Fig3_HTML.gif
Fig. 3

Evolution of articles’ research goal in JBE

Bibliometric Analysis: The Most Influential Works in Business Ethics Research: 1982–2008

The analysis begins by determining the most cited works in JBE and in each era of the journal’s life. Then, we analyze the citations by considering topic-related citation variety (the topics in relation to which works are cited) and topic-related citation consistency (whether works are constantly related to the same topic) (Durisin et al. 2010). Finally, we use co-citations for establishing connections among schools of thought and mapping the intellectual structure of the field.

Our findings point to positive aspects, but not all is bright. Throughout the years, the average number of references per article tripled, which can be considered a sign of maturation; new research is increasingly based on solid foundations. About 20% of citations are self-references to JBE, which also might be seen as a positive sign of the quality of the journal. Data show that variations in the list of most cited articles are decreasing; in the final period almost two thirds of the most cited articles are also among the most cited articles of the previous period. The average age of the most cited references increases substantially. JBE’s articles gradually disappear from the list of most influential works.

Table 5 summarizes the results of the citation analysis by reporting the 50 most cited works in JBE, and their raw and relative citation frequency2 in the overall time span (first two columns) and in each sub-period (following columns).
Table 5

Raw and relative citation frequency

Rank

Document cited

1980–2008

1982–1989

1990–1996

1997–2002

2003–2008

n = 3,793

n = 593

n = 762

n = 1,022

n = 1,416

1

Trevino (1986)

305

8.0%

6

1.0%

67

8.8%

114

11.2%

118

8.3%

2

Ferrell and Gresham (1985)

248

6.5%

6

1.0%

60

7.9%

96

9.4%

86

6.1%

3

Hunt and Vitell (1986)

236

6.2%

4

0.7%

59

7.7%

78

7.6%

95

6.7%

4

Jones (1991)

222

5.9%

0

0.0%

25

3.3%

78

7.6%

119

8.4%

5

Friedman (1970)

206

5.4%

18

3.0%

34

4.5%

49

4.8%

105

7.4%

6

Rawls (1971)

200

5.3%

24

4.0%

45

5.9%

58

5.7%

73

5.2%

7

Freeman (1984)

193

5.1%

10

1.7%

21

2.8%

58

5.7%

104

7.3%

8

Rest (1986)

187

4.9%

1

0.2%

30

3.9%

62

6.1%

94

6.6%

9

Kohlberg (1981)

186

4.9%

6

1.0%

43

5.6%

60

5.9%

77

5.4%

10

Gilligan (1982)

179

4.7%

6

1.0%

35

4.6%

68

6.7%

70

4.9%

11

De George (1982)

161

4.2%

37

6.2%

32

4.2%

50

4.9%

42

3.0%

12

Brenner and Molander (1977)

144

3.8%

40

6.7%

48

6.3%

37

3.6%

19

1.3%

13

Kohlberg (1969)

143

3.8%

7

1.2%

34

4.5%

51

5.0%

51

3.6%

14

Hofstede (1980)

137

3.6%

1

0.2%

10

1.3%

37

3.6%

89

6.3%

15

Velasquez (1982)

137

3.6%

31

5.2%

29

3.8%

30

2.9%

47

3.3%

16

Beauchamp and Bowie (1979)

132

3.5%

36

6.1%

33

4.3%

26

2.5%

37

2.6%

17

Nunnally (1978)

124

3.3%

7

1.2%

28

3.7%

35

3.4%

54

3.8%

18

Donaldson and Preston (1995)

120

3.2%

0

0.0%

1

0.1%

45

4.4%

74

5.2%

19

Carroll (1979)

118

3.1%

8

1.3%

19

2.5%

20

2.0%

71

5.0%

20

Victor and Cullen (1988)

115

3.0%

1

0.2%

21

2.8%

43

4.2%

50

3.5%

21

Friedman (1962)

114

3.0%

15

2.5%

16

2.1%

28

2.7%

55

3.9%

22

Hegarty and Sims (1978)

111

2.9%

8

1.3%

30

3.9%

39

3.8%

34

2.4%

23

Ford and Richardson (1994)

102

2.7%

0

0.0%

3

0.4%

55

5.4%

44

3.1%

24

Baumhart (1961)

100

2.6%

26

4.4%

32

4.2%

24

2.3%

18

1.3%

25

Chonko and Hunt (1985)

99

2.6%

5

0.8%

32

4.2%

39

3.8%

23

1.6%

26

Donaldson (1982)

97

2.6%

30

5.1%

16

2.1%

27

2.6%

24

1.7%

27

Forsyth (1980)

96

2.5%

1

0.2%

18

2.4%

32

3.1%

45

3.2%

28

Jensen and Meckling (1976)

95

2.5%

4

0.7%

14

1.8%

24

2.3%

53

3.7%

29

Rest (1979)

94

2.5%

2

0.3%

20

2.6%

35

3.4%

37

2.6%

30

Trevino (1990)

93

2.5%

0

0.0%

18

2.4%

30

2.9%

45

3.2%

31

Wood (1991)

90

2.4%

0

0.0%

14

1.8%

24

2.3%

52

3.7%

32

Fritzsche and Becker (1984)

88

2.3%

10

1.7%

41

5.4%

21

2.1%

16

1.1%

33

Jackall (1988)

88

2.3%

0

0.0%

22

2.9%

34

3.3%

32

2.3%

34

Ferrell et al. (1989)

86

2.3%

0

0.0%

25

3.3%

34

3.3%

27

1.9%

35

Solomon (1992)

86

2.3%

0

0.0%

5

0.7%

34

3.3%

47

3.3%

36

Donaldson (1989)

84

2.2%

0

0.0%

18

2.4%

43

4.2%

23

1.6%

37

Hegarty and Sims (1979)

84

2.2%

8

1.3%

18

2.4%

35

3.4%

23

1.6%

38

Hunt and Vitell (1993)

80

2.1%

0

0.0%

9

1.2%

25

2.4%

46

3.2%

39

Schein (1985)

80

2.1%

1

0.2%

16

2.1%

18

1.8%

45

3.2%

40

Peters and Waterman (1982)

79

2.1%

30

5.1%

21

2.8%

18

1.8%

10

0.7%

41

Bommer et al. (1987)

77

2.0%

5

0.8%

28

3.7%

24

2.3%

20

1.4%

42

Murphy and Laczniak 1981

76

2.0%

9

1.5%

27

3.5%

28

2.7%

11

0.8%

43

Kidwell et al. (1987)

74

2.0%

4

0.7%

27

3.5%

26

2.5%

17

1.2%

44

Reidenbach and Robin (1990)

74

2.0%

0

0.0%

11

1.4%

24

2.3%

39

2.8%

45

Donaldson and Dunfee (1999)

72

1.9%

0

0.0%

0

0.0%

16

1.6%

56

4.0%

46

Mitchell et al. (1997)

72

1.9%

0

0.0%

0

0.0%

12

1.2%

60

4.2%

47

Carroll (1989)

71

1.9%

0

0.0%

6

0.8%

20

2.0%

45

3.2%

48

Aristotle (1980)

70

1.8%

10

1.7%

9

1.2%

18

1.8%

33

2.3%

49

Rokeach (1973)

70

1.8%

3

0.5%

11

1.4%

15

1.5%

41

2.9%

50

Hair (1992)

70

1.8%

0

0.0%

3

0.4%

21

2.1%

46

3.2%

Note: n = number of articles published in every period. For each work in the table, the raw citation frequency indicates the number of JoBE’s articles citing the work (we do not account for multiple citations within the same JoBE’s article). The relative citation frequency indicates the percentage of JoBE’s articles citing the work. Thus, it is calculated by dividing the raw citation frequency by the total number of JoBE’s articles published in the time period under consideration

Figure 4 reports changes in top 50 articles’ influence over the four sub-periods, as measured by changes in the citation percentages. The compared changes are calculated on the basis of the relative citation frequencies reported in Table 5. The gray band shows the percentage gain or loss of influence from the first sub-period (1982–1989) to the second sub-period (1990–1996), the black band the percentage change between the second sub-period (1990–1996) and the third sub-period (1997–2002), and the white band the percentage change between the third sub-period (1990–1996) and the fourth sub-period (2003–2008).
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Fig. 4

Changes in influence. Note: Compared changes are calculated on the basis of the relative citation frequencies reported in Table 4. For each work, each band reflects the difference in relative citation frequency between two successive sub-periods. For example, for Trevino (1986) the gray band indicates the difference between the relative citation frequency in the second sub-period (8.8% according to Table 4) and the relative citation frequency in the first sub-period (1.0% according to Table 4)

Evidently, earliest contributions occupy the top positions in the list; they have been circulating in the research community for a longer period. Although this could bias the results, we believe that the risk is contained by the intrinsic scope and the design of our research. Bibliometric analysis aims at analyzing influence, which is a construct defined by the passing of time: to be regarded as really influential a research needs to be widely cited, but most importantly needs to be cited over a protracted period of time (Ramos-Rodríguez and Ruíz-Navarro 2004). Additionally, the four-era split highlights more recent works with the potential of becoming influential in the years to come.

The bibliometric approach confirms a progressive maturation of the journal and the discipline. In early periods, the most cited works are books dealing with many topics and dedicating several sections to philosophical theory, in an effort to establish the theoretical foundations and legitimize business ethics as an academic discipline. As the field evolves, authors tend to focus on more specific business ethics topics.

Bibliometric results corroborate the growing importance of empirical research by showing the increasing influence of specific methodological works (Hair 1992; Nunnally 1978). We also find that after the initial focus on moral theory (Kohlberg 1981; Rawls 1971; Rest 1986), researchers concentrate their efforts on less theoretical topics like ethical decision making (Trevino 1986; Ferrell and Gresham 1985; Hunt and Vitell 1986; Jones 1991) and CSR (Friedman 1970; Freeman 1984).

Furthermore, a limited number of influential works has a substantial influence on the knowledge structure of JBE: four out of ten articles published in JBE contain at least one reference to one of the fifty most influential works. This result reveals a certain maturity of the discipline, which has developed around some seminal works progressively recognized as classics; they consistently rank among the most cited contributions despite their increasing age. These works include the articles by Trevino (1986), Ferrell and Gresham (1985), and Hunt and Vitell (1986) on ethical decision making; Milton Friedman’s (1970) New York Times article on CSR; and De George’s (1982) textbook for the status of business ethics. However, our analysis of topic-related citation variety shows an evident change in the quality of citations over time: whereas initial citations refer to the authors’ actual contributions and conclusions, recent works merely mention them as authorities in their fields, usually alongside a number of other authors, rarely making explicit reference to specific parts of their work.

Recurring citation patterns exemplify the temporal evolution of the field. Some works are extremely influential in the initial sub-periods, but are then substituted by more recent contributions: this is the case with Brenner and Molander (1977) and Baumhart (1961), the first empirical research papers on ethical sensitivities, successively replaced by more recent and methodologically more rigorous works.

Yet, another interesting phenomenon has been at work: old works surge to the top of citation rankings as a new wave of interest hits the field. For example, several CSR-related articles regain popularity in the last sub-period (2003–2008). Friedman (1970) and Carroll (1979) gather relatively little attention in the earlier periods when the focus is on ethical sensitivities, but are “rediscovered” when the attention shifts to CSR and its performance implications.

Bibliometric Analysis: Intellectual Structure of Business Ethics Research: 1982–2008

The next paragraphs illustrate the evolution of business ethics’ intellectual structure through the bibliometric maps provided by MDS (Figs. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). The space defined by MDS varies from map to map, and so does the meaning of the two dimensions used for building each map. The interpretation of the dimensions is ex-post (after mapping), based on the researcher’s examination of emerging clusters in the map (McCain 1990). Thus, following a common practice in bibliometric studies (McCain 1986, 1990; Ramos-Rodríguez and Ruíz-Navarro 2004; White and McCain 1998), the axes have not been labeled.
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs10551-011-0924-8/MediaObjects/10551_2011_924_Fig5_HTML.gif
Fig. 5

Intellectual structure of business ethics research: 1982–2008

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Fig. 6

Intellectual structure of business ethics: 1982–1989

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Fig. 7

Intellectual structure of business ethics: 1990–1996

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Fig. 8

Intellectual structure of business ethics: 1997–2002

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Fig. 9

Intellectual structure of business ethics: 2003–2008

Figure 5 shows the map emerging from the co-citation analysis of the most influential works from 1982 to 2008. The goodness of fit index, s = 0.005 can be considered good (McCain 1990). Similar co-citation profiles cluster around each other, indicating the existence of an intellectual group. Works that are closely related to several others tend to occupy a central position in the map, while those that are loosely related or highly specific appear in the periphery.

An overall look at the map highlights three clear clusters suggesting that JBE’s intellectual structure evolved around three broad topics. They are ethical decision making, CSR, and a theoretical discussion on business ethics’ moral foundations. The densest cluster occupies the right side of the map and includes works on ethical decision making. The four most cited works in JBE (Trevino 1986; Ferrell and Gresham 1985; Hunt and Vitell 1986; Jones 1991) belong to this cluster. Each of them proposes a theoretical framework for understanding ethical decision making in organizations, providing the theoretical foundation for several consecutive empirical studies.

A second cluster emerges in the down left quadrant of the map and groups the most cited contributions related to CSR. Here, we find both works strictly on CSR and its impact on corporate performance (Carroll 1979; Carroll 1989; Friedman 1970; Wood 1991), and works on the theoretical foundations of CSR, such as stakeholder theory (Donaldson and Preston 1995; Freeman 1984; Mitchell et al. 1997).

Finally, the centre-top area is occupied by wide-ranging works on business ethics representing the philosophical foundations of the discipline and influencing JBE’s authors especially during the initial stages of the discipline. These include Beauchamp and Bowie (1979), De George (1982), Rawls (1971), and Velasquez (1982).

Clusters in Fig. 5 seem to be oriented along a horizontal “level of analysis” dimension and a vertical “conceptual” dimension. The “level of analysis” dimension is polarized around two clear extremes: on the right pole individual behavior prevails as the typical unit of analysis of studies on ethical decision making; on the left side the unit of analysis is the company, as clearly shown by the CSR cluster. As to the “conceptual” dimension, the upper side sorts purely philosophical works which over the years contributed to define the general theoretical foundations of business ethics as a research discipline. Going down along the vertical dimension, influential works leverage on the general philosophical discussion to address more specific and pragmatic problems like ethical decision making and the link between business ethics and corporate performance.

Since most of the works in the map have been highly influential in one or more of the sub-periods included in our analysis, they will be discussed in more detail in the next paragraphs.

Bibliometric Analysis: Evolution of the Intellectual Structure of Research in Business Ethics

To analyze the evolution of the intellectual structure of business ethics, we map the sub-periods by using the twenty works most frequently cited by JBE’s articles in each period. Table 6 summarizes the references used in the mapping process.
Table 6

Ranking of the most frequently cited work in JPIM in the four periods

Author(s)

Title

Citations

Period one (1982–1989)

 Brenner and Molander (1977)

Is the ethics of business changing?

40

 De George (1982)

Business ethics

37

 Beauchamp and Bowie (1979)

Ethical theory and business

36

 Velasquez (1982)

Business ethics: concepts and cases

31

 Donaldson (1982)

Corporations and morality

30

 Peters and Waterman (1982)

In search of excellence

30

 Barry (1979)

Moral issues in business ethics

29

 Baumhart (1961)

How ethical are businessmen?

26

 Rawls (1971)

A theory of justice

24

 Stone (1975)

Where the law ends: the social control of corporate behavior

23

 Donaldson and Werhane (1983)

Ethical issues in business: a philosophical approach

22

 Bowie (1982)

Business ethics: a Kantian perspective

19

 Friedman (1970)

The social responsibility of business is to increase its profit

18

 Ferrell and Weaver (1978)

Ethical beliefs of marketing managers

17

 Friedman (1962)

Capitalism and freedom

15

 Carroll (1975)

Managerial ethics: a post-watergate view

14

 Carr (1968)

Is business bluffing ethical?

13

 Cavanagh et al. (1981)

The ethics of organizational politics

12

 Ewing (1977)

Freedom inside the organization: bringing civil liberties to the workplace

12

 Goodpaster and Matthews (1982)

Can a corporation have a conscience

12

Period two (1990–1996)

 Trevino (1986)

Ethical decision making in organizations: a person-situation interactionist model

67

 Ferrell and Gresham (1985)

A contingency framework for understanding ethical decision making in marketing

60

 Hunt and Vitell (1986)

The general theory of marketing ethics: a revision and three questions

59

 Brenner and Molander (1977)

Is the ethics of business changing?

48

 Rawls (1971)

A theory of justice

45

 Kohlberg (1981)

Essays on moral development

43

 Fritzsche and Becker (1984)

Linking management behavior to ethical philosophy—An empirical investigation

41

 Gilligan (1982)

In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development

35

 Friedman (1970)

The social responsibility of business is to increase its profit

34

 Kohlberg (1969)

Stage and sequence: the cognitive-developmental approach to socialization

34

 Beauchamp and Bowie (1979)

Ethical theory and business

33

 Baumhart (1961)

How ethical are businessmen?

32

 Chonko and Hunt (1985)

Ethics and marketing management: an empirical examination

32

 De George (1982)

Business ethics

32

 Hegarty and Sims (1978)

Some determinants of unethical decision behavior: an experiment

30

 Rest (1986)

Moral development: advances in research and theory

30

 Velasquez (1982)

Business ethics: concepts and cases

29

 Bommer et al. (1987)

A behavioral model of ethical and unethical decision making

28

 Nunnally (1978)

Psychometric theory

28

 Kidwell et al. (1987)

Differences in ethical perceptions between male and female managers: myth or reality

27

 Murphy and Laczniak (1981)

Marketing ethics: a review with implications for managers

27

Period three (1997–2002)

 Trevino (1986)

Ethical decision making in organizations: a person-situation interactionist model

114

 Ferrell and Gresham (1985)

A contingency framework for understanding ethical decision making in marketing

96

 Hunt and Vitell (1986)

The general theory of marketing ethics: a revision and three questions

78

 Jones (1991)

Ethical decision making by individuals in organizations: an issue-contingent model

78

 Gilligan (1982)

In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development

68

 Rest (1986)

Moral development: advances in research and theory

62

 Kohlberg (1981)

Essays on moral development

60

 Freeman (1984)

Strategic management: a stakeholder approach

58

 Rawls (1971)

A theory of justice

58

 Ford and Richardson (1994)

Ethical decision making: a review of the empirical literature

55

 Kohlberg (1969)

Stage and sequence: the cognitive-developmental approach to socialization

51

 De George (1982)

Business ethics

50

 Friedman (1970)

The social responsibility of business is to increase its profit

49

 Donaldson and Preston (1995)

The stakeholder theory of the corporation: concepts, evidence and implications

45

 Donaldson (1989)

The ethics of international business

43

 Victor and Cullen (1988)

The organizational bases of ethical work climates

43

 Chonko and Hunt (1985)

Ethics and marketing management: an empirical examination

39

 Donaldson and Dunfee (1994)

Toward a unified conception of business ethics: integrative social contracts theory

39

 Hegarty and Sims (1978)

Some determinants of unethical decision behavior: an experiment

39

 Brenner and Molander (1977)

Is the ethics of business changing?

37

Period four (2003–2008)

 Jones (1991)

Ethical decision making by individuals in organizations: an issue-contingent model

119

 Trevino (1986)

Ethical decision making in organizations: a person-situation interactionist model

118

 Friedman (1970)

The social responsibility of business is to increase its profit

105

 Freeman (1984)

Strategic management: a stakeholder approach

104

 Hunt and Vitell (1986)

The general theory of marketing ethics: a revision and three questions

95

 Rest (1986)

Moral development: advances in research and theory

94

 Hofstede (1980)

Culture’s consequences: international differences in work-related values

89

 Ferrell and Gresham (1985)

A contingency framework for understanding ethical decision making in marketing

86

 Kohlberg (1981)

Essays on moral development

77

 Donaldson and Preston (1995)

The stakeholder theory of the corporation: concepts, evidence and implications

74

 Rawls (1971)

A theory of justice

73

 Carroll (1979)

A three-dimensional conceptual model of corporate performance

71

 Gilligan (1982)

In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development

70

 Mitchell et al. (1997)

Toward a theory of stakeholder identification and salience

60

 Donaldson and Dunfee (1999)

Ties that bind: a social contracts approach to business ethics

56

 Friedman (1962)

Capitalism and freedom

55

 Nunnally (1978)

Psychometric theory

54

 Jensen and Meckling (1976)

A theory of the firm: managerial behavior, agency costs and ownership structure

53

 Wood (1991)

Corporate social performance revisited

52

 Kohlberg (1969)

Stage and sequence: the cognitive-developmental approach to socialization

51

At the Start of the Maturation Process to an Academic Discipline: 1982–1989

The first period of JBE’s life is also one of the early phases of business ethics’ maturation as an academic discipline. JBE is the only journal with exclusive focus on business ethics; with four issues per year, the knowledge stock accumulated in this period is still limited. The most influential work (Brenner and Molander 1977) is only cited about four times per year, while in the last era (2002–2008) the most influential article (Jones 1991) is cited on average twenty times per year. The pillars of the discipline have not emerged yet, as testified by citations’ instability (only 38% of the top-cited articles will maintain a strong influence in the next period) and by the numerous business ethics books among the most cited works (De George 1982; Beauchamp and Bowie 1979; Velasquez 1982; Donaldson and Werhane 1983; Barry 1979; Bowie 1982).

The map in Fig. 6 highlights two main clusters: one in the top left side, grouping a set of business ethics books (De George 1982; Beauchamp and Bowie 1979; Velasquez 1982; Donaldson and Werhane 1983; Barry 1979; Bowie 1982), and one in the right side of the map, grouping some early empirical studies in business ethics (Baumhart 1961; Brenner and Molander 1977; Carroll 1975; Ferrell and Weaver 1978).

The dense cluster of highly cited books is typical of the infancy of a discipline. These are comprehensive works covering a wide range of topics and consequently being cited for numerous different reasons. The single most cited book is De George’s Business Ethics, “an attempt to cover the field in a systematic and reasonably comprehensive way” (De George 1982). Its structure is common among various business ethics books: it opens with the discussion of business ethics’ philosophical bases and general moral theory; then it uses the resulting framework to discuss specific issues (e.g.: whistle-blowing, insider trading, and affirmative action, etc.). An analysis of topic-related citation variety shows that this work is cited in connection with several themes: 40% of citations are in connection with moral theory, 20% are in connection with one of the specific issues in the last chapters of the book, and the remaining citations only mention De George as an important author, without specific references to the content of his work. As to the theme of citing articles, De George (1982) is increasingly cited by articles on ethical sensitivities and ethical decision making. However, there seems to be limited consistency between the topic of the citing article and the topic for which De George’s work is cited, which can be a sign of the infancy of the discipline. Throughout the years, De George’s book slowly loses its influence and it is gradually replaced by more specific topic-related works. The same evolution characterizes the other business ethics books and it is a sign of maturation of the discipline. The speed with which books lose influence depends greatly on the number of updated editions that are published: new editions of Velasquez (1982) and De George (1982) still rank among the 2003–2008 most influential works, albeit not at the top of the citation ranking, and are used for undergraduate and graduate ethics courses.

The second cluster on the right side of the map includes four empirical studies on ethical sensitivity (Baumhart 1961; Brenner and Molander 1977; Carroll 1975; Ferrell and Weaver 1978). A primary reason for their high influence and their similar co-citation profile is that these works represent the first surveys on business ethics. These articles are more frequently cited in the introduction and theory development sections of JBE articles, thus suggesting that they have been cited not so much for their methodology, but because their empirically derived results denote a rigorous starting point for further research. The survey by Brenner and Molander (1977) is also the most cited work in the period and one of the most exhaustive business ethics surveys of its time. Building on Baumhart’s empirical work (1961), the paper provides an update on managers’ ethical sensitivity and explores executives’ impressions on CSR issues and their relevance to business practices. In the era 1986–1989, over 90% of articles citing Brenner and Molander (1977) cover ethical sensitivities’ issues, and almost all citations are made in either the introduction or the literature review section (only rarely in the methodology or conclusion). In the following era (1990–1996), the article remains highly influential, it is still largely cited in relation with ethical decision making or ethical sensitivities and citations are still in introduction or literature review. In the era 1997–2002 (the last period in which the article appears among the most influential ones), Brenner and Molander’s work is cited for a wider array of topics (e.g. organizational dynamics, corporate culture alongside the usual ethical sensitivities articles); additionally, citations occur mostly in the introduction or sometimes even only in the bibliography. These two changes are probably a sign that Brenner and Molander (1977) has become a classic article, cited “because everyone cites it” (Sutton and Staw 1995) rather than being a contribution for the research design of the work under study.

Among the most influential works of this period there are also some contributions not expressly dealing with business ethics, but rather with its moral and theoretical foundations; these works maintain their influence to the present day. One is Friedman’s famous article “The responsibility of business is to increase its profits” (1970), which has been characterized as the “most refuted view in the field of business ethics” (Solomon 1992). Friedman’s article consistently ranks among the most cited articles throughout the entire evolution of the journal, and it is often referred to as “Friedman’s classic article”. Although citing articles on stakeholder theory, CSR and moral theory prevail, Friedman’s article is often cited in reference to other topics too (e.g.: ethical decision making); most citations are made to refute its conclusions. In the last period of our analysis (2003–2008), when attention to CSR explodes and CSR becomes by far the single most covered topic, this article becomes a key reference and ranks as the third most cited article.

A second influential work not strictly related to business ethics but more to the general theoretical foundations of the field, is Rawls’s Theory of Justice (1971). In later periods, Rawls’s work increases its influence and then remains somewhat stable among the top 10 most influential works even today. There is almost no pattern in the type of articles that cite Rawls, only a slight correlation to articles dealing with ethical sensitivities (hence the growing curve as this theme rises, and the stabilization as CSR becomes the prevalent research topic).

Consistent with the above-mentioned clusters, the horizontal dimension in Fig. 6 differentiates the works in terms of their research goal, with empirical works clearly on the right side of the map and theoretical works on the left side. As to the vertical dimension, the works on the upper extreme could be characterized as being specific to the field of business ethics, while those in the opposite extremes belong to other research fields but still might have ethical implications (e.g., Peters and Waterman 1982).

Further Maturation and Gains in JBE’s Influence: 1990–1996

The second period denotes maturation in the intellectual structure of business ethics. The number of books and their relevance drastically decrease and journal articles occupy most of the top positions as the most influential contributions of the period. Consistently, the few new books appearing among the most cited contributions (Gilligan 1982; Kohlberg 1969, 1981; Rest 1986) are different from earlier wide-ranging books and focus on a specific theme, namely the decision-making process of the individual in an organizational setting. Concurrently, there is an increase in JBE’s self-citations, which grow from 11% in the previous period to 20%, a level that will maintain across the following periods. The increase in self-citations indicates that JBE is becoming a relevant repository of knowledge; this is further confirmed by the presence of two JBE’s articles among the twenty most influential contributions of the period (Bommer et al. 1987; Kidwell et al. 1987). The maturation of the discipline is also evidenced by the influence of works addressing methodological issues: the presence in the ranking of Nunnally’s (1978) work is a clear sign that more empirical research is now taking place.

The citation pattern of the second period suggests that the academic discussion is dominated by two topics: ethical decision making and marketing aspects of business ethics. However, for both topics related works are highly dispersed in the map, so that no real cluster emerges and no convincing interpretation of the map’s dimensions is possible (Fig. 7).

As to ethical decision making, 50% of the most cited works in this period are theoretical frameworks depicting the ethical decision-making process, or empirical tests of the impact of certain dimensions to the decision-making process. Trevino’s article (1986)—the most cited article of the period—is a milestone in research on ethical decision making; since this period it becomes the standard reference for most subsequent empirical research on the matter, thus replacing Brenner and Molander (1977). Trevino’s framework builds on previous theoretical work by Kohlberg (1969), as evident in the vicinity of the two contributions in the map. With the intention of investigating the behavioral implications of Kohlberg’s cognitive work on moral development, Trevino (1986) highlights the central role of situational variables (job context, organizational culture, and characteristics of the work) in ethical decision making. Although not evident yet from the map, the centrality of Trevino’s article (1986) to the intellectual debate emerges clearly in how JBE’s articles cite it. In fact, citations to Trevino (1986) take the form of multiple, extensive quotes in different core sections (theory development, methodology, discussion and conclusions). Throughout the years, Trevino (1986) remains highly influential and becomes the most cited article in JBE history. Although by the 2003–2008 period, it is increasingly cited alongside other subsequent similar works, a considerable part of Trevino’s (1986) citations still takes place in core sections of the citing paper.

References to marketing-related works make up the second most important topic in this era, accounting for over 30% of the most influential works (Chonko and Hunt 1985; Ferrell and Gresham 1985; Gilligan 1982; Hunt and Vitell 1986; Hegarty and Sims 1978; Murphy and Laczniak 1981). Most of these articles also cluster in the right side of the map of the period (see Fig. 7). Murphy and Laczniack’s article (1981) ignited the proliferation of marketing studies in business ethics by concluding that, although marketing is the function most often accused of ethical abuse, research in marketing ethics remains unsystematic and weak in theoretical foundations. By answering to this quest, Ferrell and Hunt become authorities on marketing ethics, both in terms of productivity and longevity of their impact. The article by Ferrell and Gresham (1985) is the second most influential work in the period and attempts to tailor their ethical decision-making framework to marketing ethical decisions. Similarly to Trevino (1986), the article aims at determining individual willingness to engage into an ethical/unethical behavior, and combines individual and organizational factors in its description of ethical decision process. While Trevino (1986)’s article focused more on the cognitive stage of ethical decision making, Ferrell and Gresham (1985) put more emphasis on the actual behavior. Within the marketing sub-filed Hunt and Vitell (1986) focus on the interplay between deontological and teleological evaluations in the formation of ethical judgments and in the consequent individual behavior.

Theoretical Foundations Become More and More Established: 1997–2002

In the third period, JBE continues in its pattern of maturation, as shown by the stabilization of citations. The seven most cited works in this period were also among the most influential works in the previous period (albeit with lower rankings), and will again be present in the highest positions of the subsequent period. In the second era 1990–1996, 27% of the most cited works were also among the most influential of the previous period; this ratio gradually increases to 58% (1990–1996 to 1997–2002) and 61% (1997–2002 to 2003–2008). Data seem to indicate that the intellectual structure of the journal is gradually crystallizing itself on some specific works; this means that researchers are progressively establishing their theoretical foundations.

Research on ethical decision making reaches its climax: over 50% of the most influential works somehow deals with individual ethical sensitivity or individual ethical decision-making process. As in the previous period, the most influential works in this topic are the three ethical decision-making frameworks by Trevino (1986), Ferrell and Gresham (1985), and Hunt and Vitell (1986). Their distant and peripheral position in the map (Fig. 8) indicates that their co-citation profiles are becoming different, thus suggesting that JBE authors make a distinction among the three frameworks and associate each of them to specific issues in ethical decision making. This is a further sign of the increasing maturation of the discipline. Particularly, Trevino (1986) is the preferred reference on organizational factors affecting ethical decision making; Ferrell and Gresham (1985) is usually connected to marketing ethical decisions; and Hunt and Vitell (1986) is generally cited in relation to individual moral philosophy. The fourth most influential contribution is Jones’s article (1991), another framework on ethical decision making which moves the focus on a neglected contingency, namely the moral intensity of the moral issue itself.

The centrality of ethical decision making is further testified by the presence in the ranking of Ford and Richardson’s (1994) first review on the topic. The review represents the only JBE publication in the list of most influential works. The core conclusion of Ford and Richardson’s article is the scarcity of empirical studies on ethical decision making, which points to one of the main limitations of the discipline, namely the difficulty of observing and measuring managers’ ethics and ethical behaviors.

The list of most cited works and the co-citation map show the takeoff of CSR research, which will become dominant in the following period. Among the most cited works in the period, five of them are in CSR (Donaldson 1989; Donaldson and Dunfee 1994; Donaldson and Preston 1995; Freeman 1984; Friedman 1970). After the ethical decision-making models, the most influential contribution in this period is Freeman’s classic book on the stakeholder approach to CSR (Freeman, 1984). Stakeholder theory has been frequently used as a theoretical underpinning for explaining CSR, as further testified by the high number of citations received by Donaldson’s work on the same topic. In their theoretical paper, Donaldson and Preston (1995) underline how stakeholder theory has been explicitly or implicitly used by several CSR researchers as an argument supporting the positive effect of CSR practices on corporate performance objectives. Even Friedman’s (1970) classic article can be regarded as a normative application of stakeholder theory to the management of corporations. A topic-related analysis of Donaldson and Preston’s (1995) citations testifies the general agreement on the central role of the article in the intellectual evolution of CSR thinking: the paper is consistently cited for offering a broader view of stakeholder theory, for giving managerial relevance to stakeholder theory, and for establishing a link between considering stakeholders’ interests and organizational performance.

Most of the CSR contributions also occupy a central position in the map, thus indicating their increasing relevance to JBE authors from different fields of research. Friedman (1970) is emblematic in this sense, since the comparison of the three maps in Fig. 6, 7, and 8 shows a progressive move of the paper toward the centre of the map. Friedman (1970) focuses on another central issue in CSR research, namely the relationship between CSR practices and corporate performance.

CSR Comes to Complement Ethical Decision Making as a Dominant Research Topic: 2003–2008

The sub-period from 2003 to 2008 shows a major surge in discussion regarding CSR, as evident from both the citation and co-citation analyses. At the same time, most of the influential works on ethical sensitivities still appear among the most cited articles, with the articles by Jones (1991) and Trevino (1986) representing the two most influential works in the period. Remarkably for this period, none of the most cited works was published in JBE.

While the top positions in the ranking are taken by works constantly listed as highly cited, a look at lower positions reveals the rapidly increasing influence of recent works (Donaldson and Dunfee 1999; Donaldson and Preston 1995; Mitchell et al. 1997). Additionally, a look at the co-citation map (Fig. 9) shows a more coherent clustering of influential contributions, which suggests a further maturation of the field since its authors are better able to agree on relevant and similar works.

The upper right corner of the map is occupied by classic works on CSR. Besides Freeman (1984) and Friedman (1962, 1970), the cluster includes Donaldson and Dunfee’s (1999) book Ties that bind. The authors formalize ‘‘Integrative Social Contracts Theory’’ as an integrative approach to cross-cultural differences in moral principles. While the theory legitimates the existence of culture-specific social contracts, it also mandates their conformity to a hypothetical overarching social contract establishing common moral boundaries for any social contracting. The cultural component of Donaldson and Dunfee’s theory explains the proximity with Hofstede’s (1980) cross-cultural study on differences in work-related values.

Another cluster (down left area) of the map is occupied by two seminal works on the theory of the firm: Donaldson and Preston’s (1995) article on the foundations of stakeholder theory and, as a new entry among the most cited works in JBE, the article by Jensen and Meckling (1976) on agency theory.

Stakeholder theory, fundamental to theoretical discussion on CSR, is frequently introduced as a broader and less utilitarian conceptualization of principal-agent relations (Machold et al. 2008). In fact an analysis of topic-related co-citations for Donaldson and Preston (1995) and Jensen and Meckling (1976) shows that they are often cited together in the literature review section of JBE’s articles, and criticism to Jensen and Meckling’s (1976) principal-agent theory is generally used as a departure point for introducing stakeholder theory.

Another cluster (down right area) is also occupied by contributions on stakeholder theory, specifically on its link with corporate performance. An analysis of the citing articles shows that Mitchell et al. (1997) and Wood (1991) are frequently used together by empirical articles attempting to test the relationship between commitment to different types of stakeholder and corporate social performance. The two articles are often cited in the hypothesis development and discussion sessions of JBE papers, thus suggesting their relevant contribution to recent advancement of the discipline.

Discussion and Implications

The evolution of an academic field is largely reflected by the articles published in its main journal and by the citations made by the authors in their writing. By analyzing the characteristics, citations, and co-citations of JBE articles, this study aimed at offering an understanding of the intellectual structure of business ethics over the years. Through our findings, we contribute to the theoretical advancement of the discipline, to the progress of JBE as a leading academic journal, and to strengthening the connection between business ethics research and practitioners. These findings and their theoretical, empirical, and practical contributions will be discussed in details in the next paragraphs.

The Evolution of Business Ethics as a Discipline

By supplementing and expanding the results of previous similar studies (Collins 2000; Ma 2010), our findings contribute to the theoretical advancement of business ethics by providing a comprehensive assessment of its evolution and maturation as an academic field, and by identifying highly influential contributions which can be regarded as the classics of the discipline.

An overall look at the bibliometric results points toward two fundamental findings on the status of the discipline: a strong maturation of business ethics as an academic field, and an evolution from its exclusive focus on the philosophical discussion of moral principles to a more pragmatic interest in managerial and performance implications of ethical choices.

As to the maturation of the field, a first clear signal is the progressive decline in influence of generic business ethics books to the advantage of journal articles. The percentage of books in the list of most cited works drops from 70% in the first sub-period (1982–1989) to 45% in the last sub-period (2003–2008). Another sign of JBE maturation is offered by the evolution of JBE’s authorship, as shown by the knowledge-stock analysis. Initially, JBE’s articles are primarily sole-authored and published by North American researchers discussing theoretical aspects of business ethics or the results of local studies. Later, as the field acquired recognition, the range of contributing scholars and institutions increases substantially, joint authorships across institutions and geographical areas become common, and methodologically more sophisticate empirical articles begin gaining recognition.

As to business ethics’ evolution, after the infancy years (1982–1989) when research focused almost exclusively on moral theory, emphasis shifted on several additional topics (ethical sensitivities, ethical decision-making models, marketing, and CSR). Empirical research on the individual ethical decision-making process soon rose to become a prominent area of research and still remains so today. Ma’s (2010) bibliometric analysis coincides in pointing out the articles by Ferrell and Gresham (1985), Hunt and Vitell (1986), Jones (1991), and Trevino (1986) as the pillars of research in ethical decision making. However, while Ma (2010) limits their influence to the years 1997–2001, we see these articles and research on ethical decision making as more central to the overall development of the academic field, constantly influential, and still very lively. In fact, although several frameworks have been already developed on the matter, researchers are not yet satisfied and continue comparing the ethical sensitivities of different groups, or the impact of specific variables on the outcome of the process.

Recently, CSR and its link to firm performance has become a core topic of business ethics research, and certainly it is the area experiencing the most substantial theoretical and empirical advancement. Though some fundamental contributions to CSR date back to the early stages of the field (Freeman 1984; Friedman 1962, 1970), it is not until well into the new century that the topic attracts the recognition and interest of researchers. This renewed attention can be due to both a progress in CSR theoretical foundations (around stakeholder theory) and, to a great extent, to the business relevance of understating how to promote and enforce social responsible behaviors as a consequence of the numerous, prominent business scandals.

As to the most influential works, some of the contributions steadily appearing in the top positions of our bibliometric tables (see Tables 5, 6) can be surely regarded as classics in the field (i.e., Ferrell and Gresham 1985; Friedman 1970; Hunt and Vitell 1986; Jones 1991; Trevino 1986). While their content and relevance have been discussed in previous paragraphs, here it is interesting to make some considerations on the common characteristics that contributed in making them classics. These considerations might be used by younger scholars aiming at becoming influential in business ethics research. Dealing with a central problem—one that is important to both academics and practitioners—is fundamental, as proven by the fact that classics in business ethics belongs to the two most relevant research areas over the entire period under analysis (ethical decision making and CSR). Additionally, as evident from comparing the four articles on ethical decision making, a true classic takes a central problem, discusses the current state of the art, and provides an alternative perspective or a neglected dimension with sufficient potential for nurturing a new stream of empirical research. In accordance to the findings of Colquitt and Zapata-Phelan (2007), articles highly contributing to build new theory in a field (by introducing new constructs or by examining unexplored relationship in a research area) have higher chances of being cited and, thus, becoming classics in their field. In this sense, CSR research still presents several unexplored dimensions where classics—and subsequent empirical research—could emerge (i.e., CSR and innovation performance).

The Evolution of JBE as the Leading Journal in Business Ethics Research

Our empirical analysis of JBE’s knowledge stocks and citation patterns offers a thorough overview of JBE’s history and consolidation as the leading journal in the field. Since its first issue in 1980, JBE has progressively strengthened its reputation in the academic and practitioner marketplace, as proved by its inclusion in the Business Week top 20 business journals since 20023 and Financial Times top 40 business journals since 2007. Additionally, it has been indicated as the top journal by the business ethics community (Albrecht et al. 2010). This suggests that JBE has strongly contributed to legitimizing the filed of business ethics in academia, as indicated by the growing number of JBE issues and by the growing interest of other journals in publishing articles and special issues in business ethics topics. However, our findings suggest several issues that should be considered for maintaining the pattern of growth and actions that should be taken to avoid deviations.

The progressive disappearance of JBE’s articles from the list of most influential works suggests diverse considerations. On one side, it is a sign of academic maturity and rigor in citing practices. In a recent letter sent by 26 editors of marketing journals to Deans of all AACSB Business Schools, the practice of abusing journal self-cites (citations in a journal to prior articles in the same journal) for particularistic reasons has been strongly condemned and discouraged.4 Although journal self-cites are often appropriate and are part of the growth pattern of an academic journal, they have also a dark side to them and the limited number of JBE’s articles in the rankings can be regarded as a healthy approach to self-citation from JBE’s authors. On the other side, it could be argued that a relative low level of self-citations to JBE is an indicator that scholars appreciate more the work produced in other outlets, and consider a high amount of JBE’s publications relatively less relevant in setting the directions and the pace of their research field. Therefore, JBE has less of a substantial impact on the field’s intellectual structure than it is inherently set to have. Researchers also prefer to continue referencing old classics not published in JBE. However, the state of affairs is inconclusive and it could just as easily be argued that ethics is so interdisciplinary in its nature that it is natural for researchers to draw on works of different academic fields. Additionally, there might simply be a bias in that many business ethics researchers prefer to publish their best work in the established journals of more institutionally established academic disciplines (like, for example, marketing or business management) to gain recognition among the scholars in these academic disciplines, too. This is evident from the limited correspondence between most prolific authors in JBE and most cited authors in JBE’s articles (see Tables 3, 4). Similarly, Albrecht et al. (2010) find that business ethics researcher consider JBE as the main journal in the field, but indicate The Academy of Management Review as their preferred journal for publishing business ethics articles. An effort to stimulate highly influential authors to submit their articles to JBE might be valuable for both business ethics research and JBE itself. Several strategies are possible; the editorial board could be actively soliciting or inviting manuscripts from highly influential authors, for example, through dedicated special issues.5 The editorial board might also design and pursue strategies for increasing JBE’s referencing from other high ranked academic journals to further improve JBE’s reputation as an outlet for highly influential business ethics research. A possible strategy in this direction could be promoting the submission and publication of more empirical articles rigorously testing business ethics theories. Although the intrinsic difficulties of collecting data on business ethics topics persist, advances have been done (Etzion 2007), and articles outstanding in both theory building and theory testing obtain on average 3.5 times more citations than articles focusing only on theory building (Colquitt and Zapata-Phelan 2007). Actions of this kind are particularly important in light of the fact that publishing in highly cited journals and being often cited in top journals affect tenure and promotion assessments and research funding decisions.

As shown in Fig. 1 and Table 3, while the contributions from European authors have grown significantly over the years, most of JBE contributors are North American and/or belong to North American institutions. This finding is surprising since it contradicts Albrecht et al. (2010)’s finding according to which business ethics researchers considering JBE as the top journal in the field are mainly European, while North American authors tend to prefer Business Ethics Quarterly. Consequently, the bifurcation between European and North American researchers does not find confirmation in our results, which only points to the need for European researchers to gain more relevance in this field of research.

Implications for Academics and Practitioners

The findings discussed in the previous two paragraphs have implications for both academics and practitioner. First, our results can become a starting point for communication between academics and practitioners. Given the increasing business relevance of ethical issues, researchers in business ethics should make the effort of addressing topics of interest to managers. Timeliness is a key factor for making academic research relevant to practitioners (Bartunek et al. 2006). By identifying current research themes in business ethics this study represents an opportunity for academics (and practitioners) to check the extent to which academic research is keeping the pace with ethical issues indicated as relevant by managers. The growing interest in CSR within the academic community, and the fact that aligning sustainable management with organizational business goals has become a top managerial priority suggest a good fit between JBE research and business practices.

The structure of business ethics academic research will also influence the issues being taught in graduate and undergraduate programs dealing with ethical issues. The breath of topics reported in Fig. 2 and covered by the contributions in the bibliometric maps suggests that collaboration across disciplines—within and beyond business—should be the most appropriate approach for incorporating business ethics in core and elective curricula.

Limitations and Direction for Further Research

Our study certainly presents some limitations due to the research design and to the intrinsic drawbacks of bibliometric methods. First, especially in the early stages of a discipline, citations might be driven by particularistic rather than universalistic criteria (Boyd et al. 2005), and might not always reflect transfer of knowledge or intellectual indebtedness but simply driven by opportunistic considerations (Baumgartner 2003). For example, factors like interpersonal relationships (Pasadeos et al. 1998) and institutional prestige of the affiliation (Crane 1967; Pfeffer et al. 1977; Rogers and Maranto 1989) have been found to positively influence citation patterns. A common criticism to bibliometric studies points at the fact that relying exclusively on citations does not distinguish the motives for which citations are made. The consequent risk would be that drawing the intellectual structure of a field only on the basis of citations could provide a biased overview of a discipline, especially of its early stages. In our study, the presence of very few JBE’s articles among the most cited works and the relatively contained percentage of self-reference to JBE’s articles (20%) can be interpreted as indication of limited particularistic bias: JBE’s authors seem to agree on highly influential articles independently from the journal in which they are published. In addition, we attempted to reduce ambiguity in motives for citing by supplementing the basic citation counting with a qualitative analysis of the citations. For the most influential works, we checked the topics in relation to which they have been cited and the articles’ sections in which they have been cited (topic-related citation variety). Specifically, we looked at which and how many topics a certain work is related to, and whether a certain work was consistently related to the same topics. Consistency in topic-related citations signals reduced bias in citation habits. As discussed in our analysis, we are able to detect whether citations are made basically for particularistic reasons or not, and we use this information as an indicator for a real contribution to an article’s advancement. However, it is fair to acknowledge that it would also be interesting to compare JBE to other business ethics journals through a bibliometric analysis; this would remove some journal-based bias, and confirm or disconfirm the trends identified by our study. Additionally, further research could use alternative measures of influence, like the amount of press coverage received by articles and/or authors, the amount of educational attention (e.g., articles’ inclusion in business school class readings), and the amount of Web downloads.

The choice of using articles from a single journal for a bibliometric analysis could be criticized. Although we clearly indicate the advantages over selecting articles on the basis of keywords, by selecting only one journal we might have limited the potential scope and time coverage of our study. On the basis of previous bibliometric studies and of the widely accepted reputation of JBE as the most influential journal on business ethics, we are reasonably confident that the literature analyzed here represents a reflection of the major research efforts of the discipline. However, we encourage other researchers to corroborate or supplement our findings by including other journals in the citations’ analysis and by extending the study period.

Co-citation analysis has also some limitations, which should be considered when interpreting the bibliometric maps. For example, for clarity reasons this technique permits to include in the maps only a small portion of the documents cited. Additionally, the maps give higher prominence to those works that have been highly co-cited with other works, and less prominence to those works that might have received more individual citations, but are not frequently co-cited with other works. Thus, the interpretation of the maps inevitably presents a certain degree of subjectivity. However, this bias can be progressively reduced by making our maps a starting point for a discussion within the field, where our interpretation is supplemented by other experts’ perspectives and analytical tools.

Another interesting direction for future research is assessing the relevance of business ethics research to practitioners. Although our findings show alignment between JBE’s topics and contingent business problems (especially in the first decade of the twenty-first century), our analysis exclusively focuses on the impact of research on further scientific development. The influence of business ethics research on managerial practices remains mostly unexplored in our study, but surely represents a key issue for the development and the reputation of the field. Although JBE has significantly increased empirical research and, especially in the last years, articles with clear practical relevance (i.e., business cases, articles on the link between business ethics and company metrics, customer research), more attention should be spent on inquiring whether more can be done for practitioners. Future research should be done on developing bibliometric tools for measuring managerial impact of JBE’s articles, in addition to their scholarly impact.

Still, our bibliometric study of influential works and authors provides relevant evidence for the maturation process of business ethics research as published in JBE. In sum, the main contribution of this study is to offer a quantitative analysis of the intellectual structure of business ethics research to supplement (but not substitute) traditional qualitative methods for reviewing the literature. Bibliometric analysis is particularly useful for identifying influential works in a discipline and establishing links among them. Thus, researchers can use our findings as an overview of the relevant literature in business ethics as determined by its authors in their citation choices. Particularly, influential publications and citation practices provide academic novices an empirical basis for promptly become acquainted with business ethics’ milestones and professional norms for scholarship. The maturation of JBE and business ethics research as shown by bibliometric results suggests that business ethics has progressively achieved the status of an academic discipline, with its own theoretical pillars, interconnected sub-fields, influential authors, and rigorous empirical findings. By objectively detecting the above-mentioned constituents of the discipline, our study identifies new research opportunities, and affirms JBE as the main reference journal for business ethics scholars, for tenure and promotion assessments, and for research funding decisions.

Footnotes
1

In the first two eras, JBE articles were gathered in a single volume each year; however the increasing number of articles and issues eventually led the editorial board to decide to publish several volumes per year. The irregular growth of the number of volumes, coupled with the constant increase of the number of issues makes the first part of Table 2 difficult to read; therefore, the next paragraph will be based on the second and third parts of the table.

 
2

For each work in the table, the raw citation frequency indicates the number of JBE’s articles citing the work (we do not account for multiple citations within the same JBE’s article). The relative citation frequency indicates the percentage of JBE’s articles citing the work. Thus, it is calculated by dividing the raw citation frequency by the total number of JBE’s articles published in the time period under consideration.

 
3

We thank an anonymous reviewer for indicating this to us.

 
4

The letter is available at the following link: http://ama-academics.communityzero.com/elmar?go=2371115.

 
5

This strategy has, for example, been pursed by Journal of Retailing, which recently published a Special Issue in honor to Oliver E. Williamson (Volume 86, Issue 3) and succeeded in hosting the work of the most influential marketing scholars in the field of transaction costs. The prestigious authorship exhibits a high probability to increase citations to these articles and, in turn, to Journal of Retailing when it comes to transactions costs research in marketing.

 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011