TSElosophers meeting 3.12.2020. Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Maija-Riitta Ollila, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl.

1) Straub, D. W. (2009). Editor’s Comments: Why top journals accept your paper. MIS Quarterly, iii-x.
2) Avison, D., & Malaurent, J. (2014). Is theory king? Questioning the theory fetish in information systems. Journal of Information Technology, 29(4), 327-336.


We read two information systems science articles with contrasting positions to the role of theory in top journal publications. Straub (2009) is concerned that only a small minority of researchers are capable of publishing many articles in the top journals and gives general advice to researchers how to publish in the top journals. Avison and Malaurent (2014) describe the counterproductive implications of everybody trying to strive for the narrow criteria set by top journal publishing. They criticize Straub’s catchphrase “theory is king” and consider that accepting “theory light” articles in the top journals would benefit information systems science.

Our discussion

Straub’s (2009) article presents his view on the four requirements of and the six enhancements to publishing in top journals. His requirements emphasize newness, nontriviality, thematic popularity and the role of theory. Enhancements include familiar structure, finetuning and constructive relation to the “major movers and shakers”. Although all of these are, at their face value, good pieces of advice by themselves, the article fails to consider how the instrumentalist nature of the given advice might produce problems within the academe regarding good scholarship.

Straub’s list reveals how top journals disincentivize the creativity needed to pursue scholarly discoveries. Even though Straub calls for finding non-competed “blue ocean” spaces with theorization, the newness rule conjoins with conservativeness rules to water down most article contributions to incremental gap spotting. Also, the catchphrase “theory is king” encourages feigning theoretical development with unnecessary theoretical complexity. The formally presented ‘theory contributions’ (these days strikingly often in the form of precisely three of them!) are often actually very forced and artificial ones as for their true meaning content-wise. The discoveries of an entire discipline might be prevented, if other journals – in their quest to increase credibility and ranking – mimic narrow top journal requirements.

Avison and Malaurent (2014) trace issues of “theory is king” approach and suggest a mitigation to top journal requirements. Their paramount argument implies that theory-driven pursuits tend to perceive what the theory preconditions as visible and real. Consequently, they suggest that also articles without strong focus on theoretical contribution might be appropriate for publishing in top journals, if the journal editors, for instance, perceive the empirical contents of the piece exciting and novel as such or that some theoretical contributions can ensue from the discussion inspired by the article.

Avison and Malaurent (2014) adopt a radical position, since they assume theory as a uniform argument towards a clear direction, although it is much more constructive to be seen as a multifaceted structure that offers a wide range of possibilities. They fail to consider how “theory is king” has likely emerged as a contrast to studies that are very empiricist and descriptive, have no real direction and do not develop any meaningful argument. Hence, in TSElosophers’ view, their catchphrase “theory light” bears a risk of going too far in accepting empirical reports as scientific studies.

In sum, TSElosophers raised concerns regarding the catchphrases of both articles. Both catchphrases serve a certain sub-segment of researcher interests within the discipline and, hence, can easily politicize the discussion. Instead, we suggest ‘theory smart’ alternative that every article needs to fulfill. Theory smart follows Straub’s guidelines to the extent they encourage developing an interesting argument that skillfully relates to what has been argued before in the specific domain. Theory smart recognizes Avison and Malaurent’s concerns to the extent that the central driver of the study, if one needs to be assigned, should not be anything else than the well-motivated matter of concern explicated in the research question of the study.