19 March 2020

University of Edinburgh Business School doctoral student Fatemah Albader interviews Sebastian Hoffmann about his recent research.
Interview with Sebastian: German flag over the Bundestag

Sebastian Hoffmann is a German lecturer in Accounting at the University of Edinburgh Business School. His research interests include: insights and traditions in accounting and business economics; lobbying accounting standards in the local government of Germany; accounting for business under IFRS 3, and accounting regulation more generally. Sebastian's articles are published in top accounting journals for qualitatitve research such as Accounting, Auditing, and Accountability Journal (AAAJ), and Critical Perspectives on Accounting (CPA).

In this interview, Sebastian discussed his paper, 'Stigma Management and Justifications of the Self in Denazification Accounts', co-authored with Dominic Detzen (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and published in the AAAJ. His paper reflects on archival data found in Germany during the Nazi era, where the researcher stumbles upon lengthy pages written by two German professors to justify what they did as a result of being forced into the Nazi regime unwillingly.

These documents sparked the interest of Sebastian and his co-author in studying and analysing the process of "denazification" and looking at how the professors managed the stigma that followed them as a result of working with a German university during the Nazi era.

Contribution and Insights

Fatemah: An integral part of the contribution in the article was illustrating and analysing the process of destigmatisation of the German professors. Sebastian explained his attention was drawn to the archives and documents indicating the professors' proactive behaviour. While looking at this, Sebastian realised that these professors felt the need to contextualise themselves and appear as 'authors' of treatises on themselves as a way to control their narrative, and remove the stigma which resulted from their inclusivity during the Nazi period.

The interview with Sebastian shed light on the importance of uncovering a contribution during the process of looking at documents. The fact that this topic was close to his heart shows he was determined and driven by passion to uncover the reasons for why the professors did what they did. This purpose led him to look at something unique given the high stakes that were embedded within the situation of the setting.

The sensitivity of the Nazi era was also tied to the sensitivity of the data collection. However, given that Sebastian and his co-author used to work at the institution they researched, they had access and were interested in the history of the institution. The interesting part of his data collection was that the professors voluntary wrote all the justifications; they were not obligated to justify their actions. This inspired Sebastian to look at the need of the professors to manage the stigma attached to their names:

Sebastian: "We have access to all this material, let's go and see what's there. So, we started in an exploratory fashion to go into the archives, and see what materials were there during this period. Our attention was soon drawn to the post-nazi "denazification" period where people dealt with their past. They wrote lengthy pages in order to detach themselves from the Nazi regime and justify why they did what they did and why they were obedient to the regime, saying 'look we are good, and we are still moral individuals and we only did this because of the regime'.

"We found something unique because of the high stakes here. They could have been executed if they were not obedient to the regime. And from here, we thought of what we can do with these narratives in terms of power, and how they speak to accountability of reporting within the self."

Look for something that speaks to you and drives you to do better and have an impact.

Fatemah: It is no secret that the Nazi era was an extremely difficult time for people. Given that Sebastian had access to sensitive and personal information collected from the documents, he had a vivid picture of what had happened in the past, and the consequences that resulted from the regime. The topic of research during the Nazi era is extremely dear to Sebastian's heart. As a researcher, looking into a challenging era that took place in their home country must be hard because there may be personal attachment to the data collected. I therefore asked Sebastian if it was tough to detach himself from the topic and look at it specifically from a research angle:

Sebastian: "Yes, it is hard. But I may be wrong and other people may disagree. I believe there must be certain personal involvement in the research issue, because personal involvement and passion drives motivation. Look for something that speaks to you and drives you to do better and have an impact. Think of doctors. Really good doctors don't treat their patients as mere cases that require a protocol-based treatment, then leave. They look at them holistically and try to relate to the human being, too."

Fatemah: A major part of working on a case study is considering the co-authors you will work with. Making sure there are common interests between the group of authors conducting the same research is crucial. Given the sensitivity of the Nazi era and the information found in the collected documents, having co-authors that understand the complexity of the topic is crucial in having a smooth research path. Sebastian explained the importance of working with other authors, and how to choose and approach the right person to work with:

Sebastian: "This is a huge topic. For me, before I start working with someone, I need to know that I get along with the person. If that's not the case then most likely, I will not engage with them. From personal experience I learned that working with someone who is not on the same page as me will lead to frictions that distort the research process.

"Also, if you know the person you are working with, then most likely you will know their strengths which may be your weaknesses, and vice versa. They may have certain skills that you lack. But more importantly, you must consider the personal skills that other people may have. For example, I know myself that I am not someone who is very good at dealing with fine details, so I would look for someone who is good at doing this kind of work. On the other hand, my strength is to look at the bigger picture. So at the end of the day, co-authors all have skills that build on and complement each other, where they both have common ground in the sense that they share the same underlying values, work ethics, and interests in terms of the philosophical paradigms."

Fatemah: During our talk, Sebastian moved on to highlighting the importance of working with other researchers, and shed light on the learning opportunities that researchers can have during the proces. He explains that working with other researchers allows you to learn and understand more about yourself, which will be helpful in navigating research. Sebastian realistically elaborated on learning from his co-authors by considering the research process:

Sebastian: "You will learn things about yourself as a researcher. That you will know what groups of co-authors you can and can't work with. You also learn that through the process, because not everything works out or goes according to plan."

Fatemah: At this point, Sebastian turned and pointed to a quote he has on his desk as a daily reminder, that most of the time, not everything goes as planned, especially in research:

We keep on trying...that's science I'm afraid, more failures than victories.

Publishing the Article in the AAAJ

Fatemah: As PhD students and academics, one of our major goals is to have our case studies and research published in top journals. Sebastian has achieved this, and as a result has built a reputable name in the field of qualitative research in accounting. Having gone through the proces of publication in a top journal, I asked him to talk about his research publication process, and the different drafts he had to construct to develop the article:

Sebastian: "This process takes years to do. We started empirical work and went into the archives in early 2013. Then, we started to think in terms of stigma, which was in November 2015. This is when we decided to target AAAJ. We spent 6 months on redrafting. We had all the materials and analyses ready, but we needed to craft something that speaks to accountability while having a link to stigma. So across one year, we produced seven drafts by talking to colleagues and doing more reading. We made sure to incorporate a certain style that fit the AAAJ literature, in order to then have a bespoke version of the draft ready that was written for this specific journal."

Fatemah: The important take-away from Sebastian's experience in publishing is to target a journal and work towards achieving its standard requirements, but only once they have collected and analysed their data. From there, the researcher can move on to develop a draft that first the target journal in terms of "style, contribution, and literature review to make it appealing for the readers and reviewers".

While going through different realistic examples of reviewer comments during my research and classes, I realised that some reviewers' comments tend to be very critical in a way that push the researcher to completely change the contribution of the research to fit the standard of the journal. Therefore, I asked Sebastian if he went through a phase where the journal editors wanted him to completely change the focus of the paper. He offered valuable advice to PhD students and academics on preparing for publishing articles:

Sebastian: "Well, two things came together: we were prepared and lucky. If you really make the effort and try to write specifically for a journal, you can try to mitigate some risks. In our case, we were well-prepared, because we submitted in May 2016, and got reviews that were generally supportive of the paper. One was short and recommended to incorporate some more management literature in order to position the paper better.

"The second reviewer was much more critical, with regards to whether what we did is actually an accounting paper, and the rigidity of certain parts of the analysis and narrative. Most of our time and energy was spend on addressing these comments. We also refined bits and pieces of the analysis, which took us from April to October 2016.

"After this, the first reviewer was happy, and the second reviewer had minor points. Other than that, it took us six weeks to incorporate the minor comments, which led to us having it published. However, I believe that being prepared for this journal in advance minimised the points for criticism from reviewers."

Fatemah: Having his paper published in the AAAJ, Sebastian talked about the impact it had on his academic career, as well as the reputation that he managed to build for his name as a researcher in the profession. Not only did the publication represent him as an unconventional accounting researcher who is willing to look at phenomena in the local setting of Germany, but also positively impacted his academic career, in which he has met employer demands and more.

Sebastian also explained the challenges that young scholars and researchers face today. The challenge is finding the balance between employer demands and leaving a mark within the community that a researcher would like to engage with. Therefore, it is crucial for a researcher to conduct work that they are passionate about, create an impact in the field of research, as well as meet employer demands. However, Sebastian also elaborates on the major challenge he still faces today as a researcher:

Sebastian: "The thing is, you will always face challenges. A key challenge is time, because it is a constraint resource. Everything takes longer than you think it will take, everything needs to be faster than you like it to be, and everyone you engage with takes up your time resources."

Recommendations for PhD Students

Fatemah: Sebastian ended our talk with recommendations to future PhD students who would like to follow in his footsteps. He was kind enough to offer advice that all students and academics should consider:

Sebastian: "First, no matter what people tell you, do what you are passionate about, and follow what you believe in. Secondly, always be true to yourself. Third, seize every opportunity to connect and engage with like-minded people no matter how junior or senior they are, and no matter whether they are next door or at the other end of the world."

Fatemah: I was very lucky to have interviewed Sebastian which was not only a pleasant but also a very insightful talk. I have considered his advice and recommendations for finding a contribution within my research, chasing my passion, and targeting a journal for publications that will assist me in building my future reputation in the qualitative accounting research field. In addition, his advice on choosing and realising the right co-authors to work with must be taken seriously, because evidently choosing the right co-author plays an integral role in conducting transparent, smooth, and successful research.

Likewise, Sebastian's passion for his work in Germany is an inspiration to all PhD students, as evidently passion can indeed drive good research, as well as his realistic perspective on the research process when not everything goes to plan. As the quote on his desk says, 'We keep on trying...that's science I'm afraid, more failures than victories'.