The Gray Zone: Questionable Research Practices in the Business School

Nick Butler, Helen Delaney, Sverre Spoelstra

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


In recent years, the awareness of academic misconduct has increased due to high-profile scandals involving prominent researchers and a spike in journal retractions. But such examples of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism (FFP) serve to obscure the less flagrant, more subtle cases of possible misconduct: what some have called "questionable research practices" (QRPs). Where FFP is seen as inherently negative, QRPs fall into an ethical "gray zone" between permissible and impermissible. We draw on semistructured interviews with business school scholars to explore the occurrence of QRPs. Prevalent QRPs include playing with numbers, playing with models, and playing with hypotheses. Scholars explain the existence of QRPs in three ways: the inadequate training of researchers, the pressures and incentives to publish in certain outlets, and the demands and expectations of journal editors and reviewers. We argue that a paradox is at work here: To live up to the positivist image of "pure science" that appears in academic journals, researchers may find themselves-ironically-transgressing this very ideal. Ultimately, this challenges the individualistic account of academic misconduct by drawing attention to the role played by institutional actors, such as academic journals, in encouraging forms of QRPs.
Original languageEnglish
JournalAcademy of Management Learning and Education
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)94-109
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Questionable research practices
  • Academic misconduct
  • Business school research
  • Positivist science

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