Two Problems You Can Have Creating Purple Research

It’s all very well and good to say that determining whether research is publishable is essentially the same action as seeing whether a cow is purple.1

But is that actually the case? Wouldn’t a purple cow be easier to spot than publishable research?

Talking about remarkable purpleness on a cow is one thing. But your research doesn’t stand up in front of you obviously attesting its own publishability, or purpleness.

So, isn’t recognizing purple research entirely different from recognizing a purple cow? And what should you make of times when you think you have a purple cow but it turns out not to be publishable as you’d hoped?

In a word, no. Recognizing purple cows, purple research, or anything else as extraordinary is a substantially similar action. And the different venues for this action suffer from the same challenges, although those challenges take different forms for their particular cases.

Sometimes the ordinary and unremarkable can be confused with the extraordinary and remarkable. Sometimes purple can be confused with black or brown.

From the perspective of your research, this can happen in two ways:

  1. Your research might be a black or brown cow that looks purple. Or
  2. Your research might be a purple cow that looks black or brown.

1. When Black or Brown Cows Look Purple

If you put on tinted glasses, everything you see you’ll see as having the hue of those glasses.

So, if your glasses have purple lenses, what you see through them will appear some shade of purple.

Without the glasses, you might look and see a black or brown cow. But with the glasses, you might see the cow as purple.

In this case, however, what’s exceptional isn’t the cow. It’s the glasses through which you’re looking at the cow.

When a couple is newly in love, they might look at each other through “rose-colored” glasses.

Similarly, when each of us looks at his or her own research, it’s always a temptation to look through “purple-colored” glasses.

The research might, in fact, be quite ordinary and unremarkable. But because of our personal investment in it, it looks to us like the brightest and clearest shade of publishable purple ever known.

In this case, maybe what we’ve produced is on the way to being remarkable. But what’s more remarkable—what’s more purple—is how overly favorable we are toward it.

2. When Purple Cows Look Black or Brown

On the other hand, the opposite may also happen. You might have a purple cow, but that cow might look black or brown.

Put your purple cow in the shade, or look at it in the dim light of early morning or evening, and it might look just as black or brown as any other cow.

In this case, the cow is actually purple. But because of how it’s seen (i.e., the kind of light, or lack thereof), it looks black or brown.

Maybe you have a purple cow. But maybe that journal or publisher you sent it to turned it down. However your research looked to the person(s) deciding whether to accept it as publishable, it definitely didn’t look purple.

Or maybe you’re looking at your own work this way. Maybe it is a purple cow and would find pretty ready acceptance for publication. But maybe you doubt that, so you hold back on it, either worried or convinced that your purple cow might just be black or brown after all.


So, yes, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether research is actually publishable or not. But those difficulties are the same kind that come up if you’re trying to determine whether a cow is purple.

Purple cows can look black or brown just like publishable research can look like it isn’t. Black or brown cows can look purple just as publishable research can look like it is.

Fortunately, when you come across these kinds of uncertainties, there’s a definitive way to tell for sure whether your research is purple or not.

  1. Header image provided by Kordula Vahle. 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). 

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