Ten Questions with Robert M. Davison
Thursday, September 15, 2016
Posted by: Brook Pritchett
This month, the AIS InSider features Robert M. Davison, a Professor in the department of Information Systems at City University of Hong Kong. Professor Davison serves as the Editor-in-Chief of both the Information Systems Journal and the Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries. In this feature, he shares his perspective on the impact of IS scholars in the ICT4D space and calls for more IS research that impacts lives. He also shares some thoughts on the importance of context in IS research, and how to level the playing field for such papers in the review process. You can learn more about Prof Davison from his faculty website.
Sajda Qureshi writes “I would like to see Robert Davison, editor in chief of ISJ, answer these questions. He has worked tirelessly to mentor upcoming scholars in ICT4D and IS through his leadership as Editor of EJISDC which he also founded together with a group of IS academics including myself.” Find the questions below:
1. What is your assessment of the level of impact IS researchers are having in the ICT4D space compared to scholars in other disciplines?
My sense is that very few mainstream IS researchers are engaged in the ICT4D space. To what extent researchers from other disciplines are active in ICT4D I am not sure, but I suspect that there are relatively few such people. The simple reason is that, in my view, many of the people who are engaged in the ICT4D space would probably not consider themselves to be IS (or other discipline) researchers at all. They see themselves primarily as ICT4D researchers, or development researchers. So the short answer is ‘not much’! However, the ICT4D researchers are certainly exerting a considerable impact in the ICT4D space. Actually, I would argue that ICT4D is a discipline in its own right, not merely a space, with its own people, theories, topics and context. It has its own journals and conferences.
2. In your opinion, what are some of the most important research areas with the potential for lasting global impact that are being ignored by IS researchers?
Putting aside my answer to the previous question, I feel that too many IS researchers are too much enamoured of trivial research designs that can be tackled with high degrees of rigour yet which have minimal levels of relevance. This is an age old debate and I don’t much want to reopen it. But I do feel that too much IS research doesn’t really contribute anything very interesting or useful at all. We are overwhelmed by a tsunami of trivia. It may be very rigorously conducted trivia, but it is trivia nonetheless. I say this as an editor who sees several hundred papers a year, quite apart from the papers that I deliberately seek out to read. However, my observation is more directed at the research designs than the research areas. In other words, while very few research areas are totally neglected, nevertheless not that many researchers are willing to make the effort to create research designs that will result in making the world a better place. What I would like to see more of is research questions and designs that are consciously created with the objective of making the world a better place. Such purposeful, phronetic research needs to be anchored in the practical issues of our time, areas where we can make a significant contribution. One example is what is loosely referred to as Green IS, given the potentially calamitous state of affairs that the planet faces. To tackle this means recognising that we, homo sapiens, are not the only nor should we be even the primary stakeholder. We only have one planet: we need to cherish and care for it. Can Green IS help? We should be devoting lots of research energy to this topic.
3. Recently, the World Economic Forum released a report that describes a paradox of technology across societies – while ICTs are driving economic growth and decreasing global inequality, they are contributing to rising within-country income inequality. How can information systems researchers better equip themselves to deal with such research topics?
This kind of situation clearly presents both an opportunity and the potential for exacerbating the situation further. Few researchers focus on the bottom of the pyramid, where the income inequality is most obvious. So that is one opportunity. Unfortunately, I suspect that many reviewers are not that interested in bottom of the pyramid research, so even if good research is written it may be very hard to publish in mainstream IS journals, though the niche journals of ICT4D will be grateful to see the research. Another route is via what is termed technology leapfrogging, coupled with digitally enabled or emancipated societies. In many less developed contexts, there is the opportunity to leapfrog over the intervening generations of technology and move directly to the most up-to-date version. This can have remarkable impacts at the bottom of the pyramid. For instance, I was recently reading how illiterate women in India can take advantage of mobile payment technology to save money in fractional amounts of no interest to traditional banks yet with minimal transaction costs, all via a mobile phone. I am not deterministic, but ICT can make a difference. As researchers, we need to be open to investigations of these topics and then willing to review them without bias. Arguably, publishing this research won’t help those at the bottom of the pyramid directly, so we also need to spread the word about our research findings in venues where ICT researchers and practitioners, including those in government and the various UN agencies and NGOs, will see them and can be inspired to take their own actions. We had this kind of ethos in mind when we founded the EJISDC in 2000.
4. Pundits argue that many global trends (e.g. fragility of global financial markets, nationalist movements and now the Brexit) signal the coming of an anti-globalization era. What are your thoughts on this particular global trend and what role does ICT play in all of this?
Trends, like politicians and pundits, come and go. Globalization, anti-globalization. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. An eternal dialectic. I tend to ignore trends because they are short lived and I don’t think it is worth investing much energy in them. They are part of the environment where we work and live, but I’d rather focus on the more substantive issues that confront us.
5. You have provocatively written and spoken about the importance of context in IS research, yet many scholars have received journal and conference article reviews that criticize context-embedded research as having limited contribution. Why do you think it is so hard to strike the right balance?
I don’t want to over simplify, but primarily I see it as a problem of mind-set. There are those who think that context is important and there are those who do not. If you believe that context is important, then it will influence your thinking, your research designs, your questions, your writing and other aspects of your behaviour. It will also influence your reviewing and editing if you have these roles. I’d argue that all research has context, yet the contextual details are often ignored. To me, that’s a lost opportunity. I am a relativist. I don’t believe in universal truths, at least in the social sciences. In Physics, yes, because if the Bernoulli equation is not universally true, some aircraft will crash. But for me, IS is a social science, involving people and all the messiness that people bring with them, notably culture and personality. So actually it is not a matter of striking any kind of balance. Instead, it is a matter of accepting and arguing that context is important, or not.
More pragmatically, one has to learn which journals/editors are more or less amenable to the importance of context, and then submitting one’s research accordingly. This is not a guarantee of acceptance, but it does level the playing field. In terms of contribution, all research has limitations. Each method has strengths and weaknesses. Each design can be faulted. There is no such thing as perfect research. What I do find is that less experienced reviewers tend to be more dogmatic and intolerant in their views, so if you are given the opportunity to nominate reviewers, I suggest you avoid current PhD students and fresh graduates, as they are less likely to be tolerant of your idiosyncrasies. If you are a PhD student or fresh graduate, please try to be more tolerant.
6. What have you observed to be a major determinant of the productivity and research quality of doctoral students?
I find it rather odd to join these two questions together. Productivity and quality are two utterly different things, indeed may be diametrically opposed. One might equally ask about the impact made by doctoral students. Is that a function of productivity or quality or both? For productivity, which I will here assume to imply volume, it tends to come to those who start early and don’t aim to be perfect. It also requires consummate writing and arguing skills, both to create copy in the first place and later to do battle with the reviewers.
For quality, it very much reflects the mind-set and attitude of the individual, and to some extent the supervisor and the community or culture where the student is located. I increasingly find that doctoral students focus far more on the quantity (because they perceive that their future employment depends on it) and far less on the quality, because they are willing to cut all manner of corners to get things done. If they can get an A-journal paper on the way, all the better, but they recognise that the numbers game is stacked against them and that they will be fortunate indeed to get more than a brace in their careers. Expending too much energy on the chimera of that elusive top journal article may just not be worth it.
7. Can you share one of your favorite sayings or quotes with our readers?
Paradox reconciles all contradictions.
8. What community has visibly influenced your career? How can doctoral students and other IS researchers become part of this community?
The community of friends and colleagues that I have developed over the last 30 years. Some from IS, but many from a wide variety of other disciplines. So the simple answer is that they need to network. As far and as wide as possible.
9. Tell us something very few people know about you?
I am a collector of islands, an islomaniac.
10. What is your most rewarding service activity? And why?
Being a journal editor who can work with authors, especially those from developing countries, and help them develop their ideas to be as good as they can be, so that they can receive the recognition that they deserve and make the impact that is their potential.
Finally: Who would you like to see answer these questions next? And what would you like to see her/his thoughts on? (Please list two or more questions for each person).
I would like to invite Monideepa Tarafdar to answer. Monideepa is a remarkable boundary spanner between India, the US and now the UK. I’d like her to talk about how she reconciles the very different systems of values that pertain in these different contexts as she makes sense of her own life and values as a researcher.
David Agogo, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
For questions about this series or suggestions of who you would like to see interviewed, please contact David Agogo. Also, view more information about the column, a list of past features and links to the full interviews here.