Benbasat, I., & Zmud, R. W. (1999). Empirical research in information systems: The practice of relevance. MIS Quarterly, 23(1), 3-16.

[5] Just as important as, if not more important than, an article’s content is its style and tone. Stated simply, articles that are not read, regardless of their content, are not relevant. Articles that tend to be read by IS professionals are those that

• are shorter
• use more exhibits
• use everyday language, rather than esoteric or stilted language
• have less discussion of related literature
• have less discussion of a study’s methods
• have more contextual description
• have more prescriptions

Talk about a primer in how to write. Will any advisor or university encourage its doctoral candidates to follow such guidelines in writing their dissertations? What if we rewrote the dissertation outline and, per Benbasat and Zmud’s suggestion, defer the lit review and heavy methodology descriptions to appendices?

Let’s boil down the reasons for our seeming irrelevance:

  1. Emphasis on rigor over relevance: maybe we’re too busy trying to prove we’re real scientists and win academic respect instead of just studying problems and coming up with solutions.
  2. “lack of cumulative research tradition” — again, are we trying to make up for that shortcoming, our relative youth compared to other disciplines?
  3. Tech churn: the stuff we study changes so fast, our papers become irrelevant. How do we beat that? Seeking that level of abstraction might not help, might instead only move us further into the realm of eggheaded navel-gazing that already turns off business folks.
  4. Academicians not working in industry, not seeing what’s happening on the job — hmm… I’m starting to wonder if IS academicians are being asked to be all things to all people. Do we really need to pursue all that relevance? Are we uniquely expected to be relevant in addition to rigorous?
  5. Constraints on freedom of action within academia — ah! See what the authors say on the previous cause, apply it here. If we have to prepare set curricula that look good on WebCT or PowerPoint, we have a hard time conducting the free-flowing conversations that allow us to really get what’s going on in industry. We also can’t risk writing a paper that breaks the expected conventions of the publication review boards,  tenure review committees, grant-issuing agencies, etc. We can only safely take a swing at relevance if everyone else in the academy agrees to swing with us.

B&Z offer a number of recommendations for making IS research more relevant. B&Z themselves acknowledge that the simplest may be to write in a  “clear, simple, and concise manner” that makes our research accessible by all the potential readership of a journal” [12]. We’re academics; people know we’re smart. We don’t have to prove it with vocabulary; we should prove it with ideas.

Not that we should dumb ourselves down. We can still trot out some fifty-dollar words. But we should choose words as effective (and sometimes beautiful) conveyers of our thoughts, not as shibboleths.