Publishing your research in top-tier journal

Publishing your research in top-tier journals: A few words from Tom Lee

By Cristiano Guarana, Ph.D. Assistant Professor at Kelley School of Business


Publications can propel new scholars to the next academic stage. Nevertheless, identifying paradigm-changing ideas and choosing the appropriate methods can be challenging to any scholar. We interviewed Tom Lee, Associate Dean for Academic and Faculty Affairs at Michael G. Foster School of Business - University of Washington and former editor of the Academy of Management Journal, about getting manuscripts published on top-tier journals.


Q: Where do the paradigm-changing ideas come from?

Tom Lee: Everybody is different, of course. But, because I’ve worked on basically one topic my entire career, I read extensively in the area, and areas that are closely aligned with it. Over time you start to see what are the problems, what are the recurrent problems, and how you make sense of it and solve it. I started out testing existing theories, but very quickly found out that it was dissatisfying. We were not making a lot progress, in my opinion. So I thought okay, we may need better methods. We published three papers on methods. Methods are good, but it’s not the answer, and so I said, eventually, new theory. The first theory answers the question “Why do people leave?”, the second theory was “Why do people stay?”, and our current theory is “What is turnover in the first place?” So what is our criterion in the first place? And that’s we are currently hoping will resonate with people.

I got a piece of advice long ago from Fred Fiedler, a famous leadership researcher. He called it the rule of three. He said, you need at least three top-tier papers on a topic for it to have any staying power. So I’ve always tried to practice that. Say you have one paper you introduce the idea, ideally a theory piece, and then you have an empirical test of that idea, and finally you need to publish a replication and extension of the original idea, which is a hard one to get published. We have done that successfully on multiple occasions.

At some point, I think it’s important that you recognize that you have to move on to a different topic or subtopic. In my case, I went from some method issues, to the unfolding model of turnover, my first theory of turnover, to job embeddedness, my second theory of turnover, and now I have my third theory of turnover that we have published one top tier paper, and we are working on the second top tier paper. The idea is that at some point you have to recognize that your theory has to be corroborated by people independent from yourself, not you or your students. If it crashes and burns it is fine. You need to get the market determine it.


Q: As you mentioned before you were dissatisfied with the methods adopted by the turnover literature, so how to choose the appropriate methods to answer your research question?

Tom Lee: Part of that is reading broadly and getting a sense of what different fields use routinely and assume as appropriate. When I first came into the field, virtually everything was ordinary least squares. But, everybody recognizes that OLS did not fit all situations, and so it was a general understanding that you should be looking for tools that fit the analytical situation better. So, I followed that as the field was advancing. What is normal in one field is advanced someplace else. And what is advanced in one field is unheard of in another area. You recognize different subjects and different fields advance methodologically in different ways.


Q: Do you have any final thoughts?

Tom Lee: I think that one big picture item gets lost. You have to have a life and I’m not just talking some simple idea of work/life balance, but deciding where you are in your life, where are you headed, and how the job fits in. If you are comfortable with that, wonderful, but if you are not comfortable with that, then you have to make some accommodations. If you married with children, being a good parent, being a good spouse; that is very important. You have to recognize that you will have fewer hours available. If you are single and you are willing to work 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, but at some point, you have to be happy with that and if you decide you want to have a more balanced life you just have to answer when you are going to that. A lot of people say after the tenure decision gets made, that may work for some, but that does not work for everybody.


Every job there will be ups and downs and you recognize that! It’s important to have fun!