How Do You Know What Color Your Research Is?

For research to be publishable, it needs to be remarkable.1 It needs to be extraordinary—like a purple cow is extraordinary among typically black and brown cows.2

Who your research is for will help determine what shade of purple it should be, or what counts as remarkable.3 But whatever shade that is, it’s still a shade of purple, still a kind of remarkable. It’s not a kind of mundanity, not a shade of black or brown.

And it’s quite easy to spot a purple cow, or remarkable research—except when it’s not.

That ambiguity begs the question, “How do you know what color the cow really is?”

If you’re evaluating your research for yourself, how do you know whether you’re right in seeing it as publishable? If you receive negative feedback (whether from someone else or from your own internal critic), how do you whether your research really is publishable?

The answer to these questions comes in two parts.

1. Recognize colorblindness is possible.

First, you have to recognize the colorblindness or bias you or others might have either for or against your work based on how it appears.

You or your reviewers might be seeing purple, black, and brown, exactly where they are. Any of you might rightly see a piece of research as publishable or not quite there yet.

Or you or your reviewers might be seeing black or brown for purple, or purple for black or brown. Any of you might see publishable research as not really there or vice versa.

Recognizing the possibility of this colorblindness doesn’t do much to definitively answer the question of whether your research is publishable.

Still, it’s a necessary preliminary without which you can’t come to the second step that will ultimately answer the question.

What Publishing Is: A Reprise

But before I come to that second part, let me come back to what I’ve proposed as the essential core of what publishing is.

In publishing,

  • you open your research to examination by others and
  • others examine your research where you’ve made it accessible.

The point that bears stressing here is that you can only directly control the first of these two aspects of what publishing means.

Whether others will expend the effort to engage and examine your research is ultimately up to them.

You can and should use your best judgment to discern the what that will be best for your who. And that judgment is something you can improve over time.

But what others do (or don’t do) with your research isn’t something you can directly control. At best, it’s something over which you have only indirect influence.

What does this mean then for answering the question of how to know whether your research is, in fact, publishable?

2. Ship your research.

It means, simply, that this isn’t a question you can answer by yourself. You need others to help you answer it.

You can and should do the best you can to make sure your research is clearly purple. Others might agree or disagree.

But whatever their assessment, your core responsibility is to “ship” your work, or make it available. In that way, you start the process of testing whether it is, in fact, publishable.4

If the “others” that constitute your audience agree, that’s great! If not, what have you learned?

What you haven’t learned is that your isn’t publishable. What you have learned is that it didn’t look publishable to the folks that rejected it.

It’s still an open question as to who’s right and whether your research actually is publishable. But you can only get to the answer to that question by … wait for it … shipping it again.

By all means, learn from the feedback you got about what didn’t look purple in the process of your work’s rejection. By all means, revise your work as best you can so that you think it will look more clearly purple the next time around.5

Conclusion

In the end, you can only know whether your work is publishable by putting it out there, shipping it, and seeing what happens.

Publication isn’t something you can directly control. So, focus instead on what you can control—sitting down, producing research that looks purple as best you can honestly tell, and putting it out there to see whether you get agreement or suggestions for improving its hue.


  1. Header image provided by Kordula Vahle

  2. The “purple cow” metaphor here and below I’ve borrowed from Seth Godin, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (New York: Portfolio, 2003). 

  3. For the “first who, then what” principle, I’m particularly playing off of and adapting the discussions of Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 41–64; Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (New York: Portfolio, 2010). 

  4. For more on the importance of making creative work available for others, see Seth Godin, The Practice: Shipping Creative Work (New York: Portfolio, 2020). 

  5. On the importance of revising rejected material and putting the revised version back out for publication, see also Stanley E. Porter, Inking the Deal: A Guide for Successful Academic Publishing (Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2010), 89–102. 

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