Why Kenya’s business research output remains low quality
Wednesday April 26 2023
In Kenya, we thrive as the regional hub for quality secondary and tertiary education. Students come from across the region and continent to learn in our institutions.
But despite our extremely high literacy, strong professional business work climate, thriving world-leading tourism, NGO, financial technology, and entrepreneurship industries and then region-leading healthcare, banking, and insurance sectors, our business research output subsides in a sadly dismal state.
We tolerate largely derivative copycat research in our business schools, business forums, and think tanks.
If we were to compare our business research output to the medical field, would we prefer medical research in Kenya to confirm over and over again hundreds of times that paracetamol reduces headache pain?
How about if stress levels lead to more frequent headaches? What about if overeating leads to increased weight gain?
These medical research topics seem extremely basic and surely each has been proved conclusively generations ago.
Instead, we would prefer our medical researchers across the nation to look into other aspects of paracetamol.
What about new uses for paracetamol’s long-term impact on heart disease for a unique subset of the population with certain heart defects?
Why not look into paracetamol consumption and the effects on certain cancers more commonly found in Kenya?
How about possible paracetamol adverse drug interactions with particular indigenous vegetables only grown and consumed in Kenya?
Indisputably these three possible medical research examples would provide more help to our society than the original three basic health topics shown above that are already well-known research topics.
Annually in business, hundreds of Kenyan research papers get published about whether job satisfaction reduces employees quitting their jobs, the effects of transformational leadership on employee job performance, how commitment to one’s organisation improves their citizenship behaviour in their entities, and the degree to which an entrepreneur’s intentions affects their profits.
These business research examples are like the basic paracetamol example that have been proven in literally thousands of studies.
Why repeatedly redo what others have already done? Just testing an already over-tested theory in a new sub-sector is research, but not world-leading and not cutting-edge.
But most do not even test new industries or sectors either.
The Russell Group categorises research into world-leading cutting-edge and non-world-leading.
They do not count non-world-leading research in their calculations to evaluate research output. By this measure, we would fail in much of our business research.
We face academic compromise that filters into our training of the next generation of Kenyan business researchers. There are arguably five main causes for our low output and low-quality business research.
First, we often structure our business research training poorly. We allow derivative non-original research themes and long-outdated methodology.
Many research projects do not even require an oral defence at the Master’s level or a question and immediate response at the doctoral level.
Then confused students who feel inadequately trained in research methods feel they have no other option than to turn to cheating by paying someone else to conduct and write up their research.
Various Kenyan surveys place academic rampant cheating on Masters and doctoral dissertations at over 80 percent.
So, we end up with business leaders who cannot lead and researchers who cannot write. If we compared that to the medical field, it would be like retaining doctors who cannot heal.
Why do we tolerate it more in business than we do in medicine?
While we can see the medical effects of poor training immediately, in business the impact often takes longer to realise but is no less potent or destructive to citizens’ lives in our society.
Second, we often lack academic freedom in business research. We typically hold academic freedom of what we research but not the methodology of how we research.
Such sad issues can be seen in how we treat our doctoral students across much of our higher education sector.
Doctoral candidates are mostly made to follow pedestrian analysis tools of the last generation and then cannot get published in high-ranking impact journals around the world.
Further, incorrect statistical methods of grouping dissimilar constructs into massive latent variables yield much of our business research unhelpful and unpublishable on grand scales.
Universities here frequently do not allow the latest methodology and analysis methods. As an example, over 90% of top business academic journals around the world include mediation models over moderation models in quantitative research.
But in Kenya, the vast majority of doctoral candidate research and faculty publications include moderation models or no moderation or mediation at all thus only looking into direct relationships between variables.
We often go for simple and easy rather than innovative and useful.
Third, low research budgets and minimal salaries for academics and researchers. Faculty often must seek training and consulting opportunities to supplement their meagre earnings.
This leaves less time for deep meaningful thought, conceptualization, research execution, and publishing. Educationists and believer in the highest levels of quality standards attainable, Maina Muchara advocates for living wages for academics and ties that into enhancing academic research freedom.
Further, the low research budgets mean faculty and graduate-level researchers alike lack access to the ridiculously overpriced research journals that abundantly rich institutions can purchase for their constituents to read and learn from.
Fourth, publisher bias. The powerful publishing sector and its global north affiliated associations, editors, and reviewers hold a bias against African-produced research.
Also, intense institutional bias exists whereby research publications are dramatically more likely to publish studies by faculty at the top fifty ranked universities on the Times Higher Education or QS rankings.
Since none of our Kenyan universities features highly in any international ranking for some deserved and some undeserved reasons, our research gets deprioritised and overlooked with the resulting Kenyan researchers searching for lower-tiered journals to place their publications and therefore suffer from insufficient peer review.
Fifth, bureaucracy, bureaucracy, bureaucracy. Hyrine Matheka states that doctoral completion rates in Kenya hovers around only 11%.
The major contributing factor involves bureaucracy. Rules sending students in circles.
Numerous nonsensical levels of approval. Confusing requirements. Unclear correction standards for papers. Unavailable supervisors. Supervisors unsure about shifting university or research centre policies.
Universities should be made to publish their doctoral completion rates publicly so incoming students can make informed decisions.
In summary, the above main factors send us into a downward spiral, and we accept mediocrity. We need to make our Kenyan research journals abide by the same rigorous standards as anywhere else while retaining our unique Kenyanness.
There are clearly many exceptions to the above observations, such as world-class Kenyan business researchers including Timothy Okech, Paul Katuse, Judy Muthuri, and Kenneth Kungu, among many many others.
But on average, the observation stands extremely pertinent. Let us progress onwards and upwards. Let our business research match our dreams and aspirations as a nation.