Ten Questions with Alok Gupta
Monday, March 25, 2019
Posted by: Brook Pritchett
This month, The AIS InSider features Alok Gupta, the Associate Dean of Faculty and Research and Curtis L. Carlson School-wide Chair in Information Management at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota. Professor Gupta was chosen as the Editor-in-Chief of Information Systems Research (ISR) with his first term starting in January 2017. His research has been published in various information systems, economics, and computer science journals. In addition, his articles have been published in several leading books in the area of economics of electronic commerce. In this feature, he answers questions about how researchers can be entrepreneurial in their academic research, and shares his approach to remaining a balanced academic and his personal motivation for taking on the EIC role at ISR. You can learn more about Professor Gupta from his faculty website: https://carlsonschool.umn.edu/faculty/alok-gupta
1. Jason Thatcher writes, “You are one of the most balanced, reasonable scholars that I know. How do you do it? How do you juggle (the roles of) associate dean, journal editor, author, father and husband? Also, what keeps you engaged?”
Wow Jason! Thank you! That is a big complement and, now that I think about it, a lot of pressure and expectations. Truthfully, I did not ever think that I would be doing all of this, I always just wanted to do research and teach. Other things came along as responsibilities that I did not necessarily want initially. However, over time the appreciation of colleagues and the sense of accomplishments when initiatives paid off kept me going. The simplest answer to the question is that I care about my responsibilities and I try to do my best; and when I don’t complaints from authors, faculty, and my loved ones make me try harder! Also, I am blessed with a process-oriented mindset that helps me find solutions to problems quickly, an incredibly supportive set of support staff both at Carlson School of Management and INFORMS, and a great family who are extremely supportive and are my true strength.
More than juggling though, the reasons why I accepted these different roles is something I want to talk about. Since I don’t want to write a novel here, let me just mention why I embraced the role of the EIC even when I knew that it will put additional strain on my time. As a researcher, several of my breaks came from intervention of EICs even when I hardly knew them. Among those are Izak Benbasat whose sense of fairness allowed my coauthors and I to have him spend time on a review process that we thought was run amok; Ron Weber, who without our prompting, felt that the review team on my first paper at MISQ was asking for inappropriate analysis; and Vallabh Sambamurthy, who cared for every author regardless of their methodological approach. I felt I owe it to the field and these stalwarts to give back to our community by serving in this role.
2. In the past, you have referred to the need for the IS field to embrace researchers and research from a wide array of fields, and to maintain entrepreneurial spirit in research and its evaluation. What are some efforts that the team at ISR have taken in this direction?
I have always been a bit of oddball in MIS research and have struggled to gain acceptance in any community. The two sub communities (WITS and WISE) that I align probably the most with don’t necessarily feel that I belong with them. It is perhaps because, for me, identification with a group is not that important. I have always been driven by the problem and I feel restricting people to certain communities, methodological domains and topics will restrict the growth of our field. As a dynamic field that “has to” embrace new techno-social paradigms and increasingly wider application areas, we cannot afford to turn away new ideas from a variety of reference and practice disciplines.
At ISR, we are doing two broad things with the help of editorial board:
i) In my first editorial (March, 2017), I asked the ISR editors to not reject papers based on fit with ISR if they did not see that fit without first giving authors a chance to explain and potentially justify that fit. Often, authors have a perspective in mind that to them makes the fit self-evident but an editor, not having the benefit of that vision, may not. This does not mean that we do not question the fit at all but the additional step makes us deliberately more inclusive.
ii) It is my sense that while we hear a lot about IS research being driven by phenomena, truly new ideas are not the norm of publications in major journals. In my editorial in December 2018 issue, I have tried to help both authors and editors in laying out a different way of looking at contributions. I don’t want to repeat the arguments here, but my hope is that if we embrace the idea of looking at contribution in its totality by looking at a submission’s innovation quotient and rigor quotient then we can maintain the high quality of publication and impact.
3. Disruptive innovation refers to innovations that create a new market and displace existing value networks. Is the traditional peer review and publishing process going to get disrupted? Can you offer any thoughts on who or what may disrupt academic publishing?
I think peer reviews are still the best form of (free) feedback that allows us to improve our ideas and communicate it to a wider audience. However, clearly platforms such as SSRN allow researchers to share their ideas early and stake a claim on innovations. I am sure that in 25 years, we will not even need to check for methodological correctness of papers as the work probably will be done by computational algorithms, the key to new research would be innovation in ideas and that perhaps can also be checked and validated. I am indeed waiting for the first journals that will employ automated reviews before an editor can give it a final look.
4. What do you think are the main challenges of successfully publishing analytics and data mining research in top IS journals?
The main challenge in publishing computational research, in general, is that researchers coming from these traditions want to publish exactly the same kind of manuscripts that they could publish in a computer science journal. MIS is ultimately a field related to business, therefore, it is imperative to make a connection and demonstrate value to business processes or outcomes. While computational work can make theoretical contributions and those papers will find their way into major journals, the key failing of technical papers in MIS journals is the fact that often these papers do not make a case for the impact of research beyond the comparison with prior approaches or algorithms. Again, in my December 2018 editorial, I have outlined approaches that will allow analytics, data mining and other computational research to get published in ISR.
5. What do you consider the most important research questions (or research domains) of the next five years?
My feeling is that chasing what may be hot (especially in five years) is a futile exercise. One should work on research where their passion lies. The human mind is amazingly unpredictable; two individuals may be trained in exactly the same way, yet when you present a complex problem in front of them (not one that can be solved in a set of predefined steps), they will come up with answers or approaches that are quite different. When someone is passionate about a stream of work, it’s likely that their answers will not only be different but innovative. To me the path to being a good scholar is to chase your passion and not a hot topic.
6. Currently, what is your favorite class to teach? And why?
I love every class that I have taught. Even when I was teaching programming, I often wrote my own notes and taught from them rather than using a book. It kept me engaged and interested. Of late, I don’t teach a lot given my administrative duties but among the favorite classes in the last five years is an online MBA class on market design – I loved teaching that class because I learnt online teaching technologies and also had to rethink my curriculum entirely. Two other classes I enjoy teaching are a Ph.D. class on problem formulation and algorithms, and an experiential learning class where we work with real-world clients solving real problems, often making tens of million dollars impact.
7. Can you share one of your favorite sayings or quotes with our readers?
“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” by Albert Einstein.
8. With respect to your career, if you were to do it all over again, what would you have done differently? Why?
I have had a great career thanks to my colleagues, students and institutions I was with. I would not have done anything differently because my failures made me better and my successes made me realize how important others were in making me succeed. I do feel that I love my work so much that I perhaps did not pay as much attention to my family and kids when they were young, that is a big regret I have about my early career.
9. What is your favorite memory at an AIS event (ICIS/AMCIS) or affiliated conference (ECIS/PACIS/etc.)?
One of the most enduring memories, that I can’t call it the favorite, was being denied entry to an empty Indian/Pakistani restaurant in Finland. I was with Paulo Goes and Jim Marsden and all of us were just dumbfounded when the person on the reception told us that if you do not have reservation we will not serve you. Among the favorite memories is Vallabh Sambamurthy patting me on the back and saying hello at Barcelona after moving to Minnesota and I desperately trying to figure out who he was – thanks to Sue Brown who was passing by and loudly greeted him “hello Samba!”
10. What is your favorite part about being an academic?
My most favorite part of being an academic is to work with Ph.D. students and see them succeed. I have been lucky on that account. About a decade back, someone asked me in a conference panel: What is your contribution to the discipline? Instinctively, I pointed towards Ravi Bapna, who was sitting in the audience and said, there sits my contribution. Being able to help and shape research thoughts similar to how my advisors (Andy Whinston and Dale Stahl at UT Austin) did for me has been a privilege and satisfaction that nothing else has provided in my professional career.
Tian Yu, Florida International University, Miami. To suggest individuals who you would like to see interviewed, view more information about the column, and see a list of past features, please visit: http://bit.ly/ais10questions