An historically grounded critical analysis of research articles in IS

Abstract

In order to explore scientific writing in Information Systems (IS) journals, we adopt a combination of historical and rhetorical approaches. We first investigate the history of universities, business schools, learned societies and scientific articles. This perspective allows us to capture the legacy of scientific writing standards, which emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then, we focus on two leading IS journals (EJIS and MISQ). An historical analysis of both outlets is carried out, based on data related to their creation, evolution of editorial statements, and key epistemological and methodological aspects. We also focus on argumentative strategies found in a sample of 436 abstracts from both journals. Three main logical anchorages (sometimes combined) are identified, and related to three argumentative strategies: ‘deepening of knowledge’, ‘solving an enigma’ and ‘addressing a practical managerial issue’. We relate these writing norms to historical imprints of management and business studies, in particular: enigma-focused rhetorics, interest in institutionalized literature, neglect for managerially grounded rhetoric and lack of reflexivity in scientific writing. We explain this relation as a quest for academic legitimacy. Lastly, some suggestions are offered to address the discrepancies between these writing norms and more recent epistemological and theoretical stances adopted by IS researchers.

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Acknowledgements

The authors gratefully acknowledge the clear and constructive reviews from the associate editor, the senior editor and all the reviewers on the earlier versions of this article. Their comments have substantially helped us improve our work. They also thank Steve Smithson and Jonathan Liebenau of the London School of Economics for their time.

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Correspondence to François-Xavier de Vaujany.

Appendices

Appendix A

List of acronyms

CAIS :

Communication for the Association of Information Systems

EJIS :

European Journal of Information Systems

ESC :

Ecole Supérieure de Commerce

ESSEC :

Ecole Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales

ESCP :

Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Paris

HEC :

Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales

IAE :

Institut d’Administration des Entreprises

I&M :

Information and Management

ICIS :

International Conference on Information Systems

IS :

Information Systems

ISJ :

Information Systems Journal

ISR :

Information Systems Research

JAIS :

Journal of the Association for Information Systems

JIT :

Journal of Information Technology

JSIS :

Journal of Strategic Information Systems

JMIS :

Journal of Management Information Systems

MIS :

Management Information Systems

MISQ :

Management Information Systems Quarterly

MISQE :

Management Information Systems Quarterly Executive

SIM :

Systèmes d’Information et Management

SJIS :

Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems

TIS :

Technologie, Information et Société

Appendix B

See Table B1

Table B1 List of documents used for MISQ and EJIS historical analysis

Appendix C

Examples of the main argumentative strategies and their typical reasoning sequence

DEEP: Example of first argumentative strategy (‘deepening of knowledge’)

An example of this rhetoric may be found in Arnold et al.'s (2006) abstract below, in which we show our sequential coding into several sequences S 1S n :

[Explanation facilities are considered essential in facilitating user interaction with knowledge-based systems (KBS). Research on explanation provision and the impact on KBS users has shown that the domain expertise affects the type of explanations selected by the user and the basis for seeking such explanations.] S 1

[The prior literature has been limited, however, by the use of simulated KBS that generally provide only feedback explanations (i.e., ex post to the recommendation of the KBS being presented to the user).] S 2

[The purpose of this study is to examine the way users with varying levels of expertise use alternative types of KBS explanations and the impact of that use on decision making.] S 3

[A total of 64 partner/manager-level and 82 senior/staff-level insolvency professionals participated in an experiment involving the use of a fully functioning KBS to complete a complex judgment task. In addition to feedback explanations, the KBS also provided feedforward explanations (i.e., general explanations during user input about the relationships between information cues in the KBS) and included definition type explanations (i.e., declarative-level knowledge).] S 4

[The results show that users were more likely to adhere to recommendations of the KBS when an explanation facility was available. Choice patterns in using explanations indicated that novices used feedforward explanations more than experts did, while experts were more likely than novices to use feedback explanations. Novices also used more declarative knowledge and initial problem solving type explanations, while experts used more procedural knowledge explanations. Finally, use of feedback explanations led to greater adherence to the KBS recommendation by experts – a condition that was even more prevalent as the use of feedback explanations increased. The results have several implications for the design and use of KBS in a professional decision-making environment.] S 5

Its reasoning sequence is:

  • RS 1 (S 1): There is a consequent literature about knowledge-based systems, the explanation provision and end-users.

  • RS 2 (S 2): Nonetheless, the ‘use of simulated KBS’ has limited potential contributions (a weakness is identified).

  • RS 3 (S 3 and S 4): A specific research is designed to fill this gap. It aims at identifying the way ‘users with varying levels of expertise use alternative types of KBS explanations and the impact of that use on decision making’. It relies on 64 partner/ manager-level and 82 senior/staff-level insolvency professionals all involved in an experiment.

  • RS 4 (S 5): With this original approach, new contributions are put forward: ‘The results show that users were more likely to adhere to recommendations of the KBS when an explanation facility was available. Choice patterns in using explanations indicated that novices used feedforward explanations more than experts did (…)’. Current state-of-the-art research is extended by this work.

This string of reasoning sequences is very close to that describing the DEEP category. The logical anchorage is the literature (which is extended by this work about KBS).

ENIG: Second example of argumentative strategies (‘solving an enigma’)

An example of this rhetoric may be found in Weitzel et al.'s (2006) abstract below in which we show our sequential coding into several sequences S 1S n :

[This paper is motivated by the following question: What drives the diffusion of a communication standard and what diffusion results can we expect?] S 1

[Past literature provides many instructive but mostly unrelated answers. Findings relate to startup problems, penguin effects [reluctance to move first for fear of failure] and tendencies toward monopoly, but substantial problems in applying the models to concrete standardization problems reveal that the dynamics are probably more complex. A single standard attracting a critical number of users does not ultimately guarantee adoption by a network. Not all diffusion results are complete nor do they provide standardization.] S 2

[The conditions of specific diffusion behaviors are addressed by developing a formal standardization model that captures all fragmented phenomena in a unified approach. Drawing upon findings from other research, we incorporate the structure of the underlying user network as an important determinant for diffusion behaviors.] S 3

[The approach allows us to disclose varying conditions that generate frequently observed standardization behaviors as special parameter constellations of the model. Using equilibrium analysis and computer simulations, we identify a standardization gap that reveals the magnitude of available standardization gains for individuals and the network as a whole. The analysis shows that network topology and density have a strong impact on diffusion of standards and that the tendency toward monopoly is far less common than thought.] S 4

[We also report how the model can be used to solve corporate standardization problems.] S 5

Its reasoning sequence is:

  • RS 1 (S 1): In the literature, there is still an obscure unexplained point: what encourages the diffusion of a standard, with what effects?

  • RS 2 (S 2): Past literature brought some (fragmented and desultory) answers.

  • RS 3 (S 3): An evaluation of existing models underlines simplistic dynamics.

  • RS 4 (S 4 and S 5): A unified formal approach is proposed. It is elaborated with the help of a meta-analysis of results. The model is tested through a numerical simulation. The effect of the network topology is isolated.

The focus of the sequence is anchored in an institutionalized research question. The work aims at going beyond the fragmented literature dealing with the issue of communication standards’ diffusion and addresses an enigma.

Other abstracts we also coded as enigma either developed radical alternatives or suggested the institutionalization of a new research question (more relevant than previous ones).

PRACT: Third example of argumentative strategies (‘practical issue’)

An example of this rhetoric may be found in Butler & Gray's (2006) abstract below in which we show our sequential coding into several sequences S 1S n:

[In a world where information technology is both important and imperfect, organizations and individuals are faced with the ongoing challenge of determining how to use complex, fragile systems in dynamic contexts to achieve reliable outcomes.] S 1

[While reliability is a central concern of information systems practitioners at many levels, there has been limited consideration in information systems scholarship of how firms and individuals create, manage, and use technology to attain reliability.] S 2

[We propose that examining how individuals and organizations use information systems to reliably perform work will increase both the richness and relevance of IS research.] S 3

[Drawing from studies of individual and organizational cognition, we examine the concept of mindfulness as a theoretical foundation for explaining efforts to achieve individual and organizational reliability in the face of complex technologies and surprising environments.] S 4

[We then consider a variety of implications of mindfulness theories of reliability in the form of alternative interpretations of existing knowledge and new directions for inquiry in the areas of IS operations, design, and management.] S 5

Its reasoning sequence is:

  • RS 1 (S 1): The issue of IS reliability is essential for IS practitioners.

  • RS 2 (combines S 2 and S 3): This issue is congruent with academic literature.

  • RS 3 (S 4): The authors propose to use the concept of ‘mindfulness’ in order to shed light on the studied phenomenon (through a literature review on cognition).

  • RS 4 (S 5): Implications for IS design and management.

This string of reasoning sequences is very close to that describing the PRACT category. The logical anchorage is a practitioner's concern (or at least what is perceived as a practitioner's concern) about IS reliability. Implications are drawn for IS design and management.

Example of a hybrid logic: fourth example of argumentative strategy DEEP-PRACT

An example of this rhetoric may be found in Whitley & Hosein's (2008) abstract below in which we show our sequential coding into several sequences S 1S n :

[The U.K. Government, in presenting its proposals for biometric identity cards, made strong claims about the technology and science underlying the proposed National Identity Scheme.] S 1

[In this paper, we use insights from science and technology studies (STS), particularly Latour's ‘Politics of Nature’ argument, to analyse the parliamentary debates about the technological and scientific aspects of the proposals.] S 2

[The authors were part of a team that produced a report that raised a series of perplexities about the Scheme in an attempt to counter the short-circuiting of discussion of these perplexities in the parliamentary debate.] S 3

[The paper analyses the government's attempts at short-circuiting in light of Latour's argument and the introduction of perplexities by our report. It demonstrates the extent to which this form of STS can enhance political debate about technological decisions.] S 4

RS 1 (S 1): The U.K. government has developed a policy about biometric identity cards with some underlying assumptions about science and technology. There is a gap, something missing in our knowledge about the national identity scheme (NIS);

RS 2 (S 2): Based on STS, these underlying assumptions are illuminated;

RS 3 (S 3): Authors have been involved as actors in the debate, and use this experience to push further analysis and its implications;

RS 4 (S 4): This work of deconstruction is used to demonstrate ‘the extent to which this form of STS can enhance political debate about technological decisions’. This practical experience is used to stimulate reflexivity.

In this paper, two logical anchorages can be identified: practitioners (public managers or politicians) and the literature (interested in extending our knowledge of the NIS and also the applicability of a theoretical framework). Here, the authors of the abstract (and the paper) appear to adopt both rhetorical approaches and corresponding argumentative strategies. On the one hand, the authors were ‘part of a team that produced a report’, they participated in the public debate, they insist on their action-oriented stance. On the other hand, they analyse their action (and the difficulties of this action) and suggest that their work show ‘the extent to which this form of STS can enhance political debate about technological decisions’. The move from S 2 to S 4 thus epitomizes a hybrid reasoning sequence (combining two logical anchorages).

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de Vaujany, F., Walsh, I. & Mitev, N. An historically grounded critical analysis of research articles in IS. Eur J Inf Syst 20, 395–417 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1057/ejis.2011.13

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Keywords

  • argumentative strategies
  • history
  • academic writing
  • legitimacy