the publication recipe

From 8 o’clock in the morning until 5 o’clock in the evening an undergrad research assistant would sit behind the angular metal desk inside of the door of the Harris Aggression Lab. Their job was basically that of a human turnstile: They shepherded the parade of participants through the procedures of the lab’s latest study all day long and ensured the flow of participants coming out don’t bump into the flow of participants going in. To maximize efficiency, the schedule was staggered so that as soon as one of the eight booths was vacated, another participant could fill the void. Like a finely-tuned V8 engine, participants went in-and-out and in-and-out and in-and-out of the eight booths at a perfectly staggered pace. 

The lab’s days were filled with the sound of data being collected–the swooshing sound of the door opening and closing sandwiched between the undergrad research assistant’s friendly-sounding “hello” and a “goodbye.” Thousands of participants would make their way through the Harris Aggression Lab over the course of an academic year going through more-or-less the same routine. Hello. Swoosh. Swoosh. Goodbye. Sometimes two at a time. Hello. Hello. Swoosh. Swoosh. Swoosh. Swoosh. Goodbye. Goodbye. 

These participants would press thousands of buttons on the keyboard and leave behind thousands of rows and columns of numbers that would go into the ether of the lab’s computer system. And these thousands of rows and columns of data were the raw materials the graduate students would use to manufacture the lab’s scientific publications.

Henry Ford would be proud at the efficiency of this operation. 

“Numbers in, publications out,” Bear would flippantly hum as he hammered out the draft of the lab’s next manuscript. Writing up the lab’s publications became his specialty. It was another one of those things that most people found complex, but he found it to actually be quite simple. He also took a sadistic pleasure in how he was able to pass off a few hour’s of mundane writing as serious scholarship, like he was pulling one over on the people who actually took the process of publishing academic articles seriously. Sometimes he felt bad about it, his not taking the publication process serious and all, but never enough to stop him. The peer reviewers and editors were all other academics who probably got into psychology because they thought they were going to be nobly doing science, but they ended up with a crummy job in some small public university they’d never heard of before and sitting in meetings all day. They’d probably get gripes from their students and their department chairs all day and then go home and get it from their spouse. They’d probably be flattered to be invited to peer review an article because it made them feel like they were still doing science and they could say things that seemed to matter. And now Bear was poking fun in his own way through the manuscripts coming out of the Harris Aggression Lab, even though they didn’t know that Bear was poking fun. He just couldn’t help it, the not taking the publication process seriously that is. 

“Do you cook?” Bear asked Cal on one of their long walks along the Mississippi River front. “Because writing these publications is like following a recipe. Once you figure out the recipe, it becomes easy. And I’m not talking about baking bread from scratch either. I’m talking about starting with sliced bread and making toast.” Cal didn’t mind that Bear didn’t care too much about his work, but it really bothered him how brazen and explicit he was about it. At least when Bear was quiet Cal could ignore him. 

Academic articles had a predictable format of Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion sections, which the lab acronymized as IMRaD. Boy, they loved their acronyms as much as they liked their military jargon. 

Sometimes they would use the acronym as a verb: “Do you even IMRaD, bro?” And sometimes they used it as a noun. “You start with the IMRaD,” Bear would explain like he was revealing the secret behind how a card trick is done. Even further than the basic IMRaD structure, the Harris Aggression Lab had amazingly similar content within each of these sections so that it became, well, like a recipe that one had to follow, step-by-step, to bake up the next publication. “And then you just add in the information that you know the peer reviewers and the editor is looking for and nothing else. When you do this,” Bear would explain, “you realize that 90% of the manuscript is just filler words. You can write it in your sleep. You just have to focus on 10% of the stuff that really matters.” A thing as complex as an academic article came easily to him, so he talked as if it came similarly as easy to others. “In the Introduction you want to include some sort of ‘real world’ anecdote so it seems like the study is not merely an academic exercise. You know, mention a school shooting or a crime or something to grab the reader’s’ attention. Then they think the article’s real important and all. In the Methods you write something along the lines of the driving simulator analogy. In the Results you want to make a really nice figure. The peer reviewers will mostly just look at the figure anyways, they don’t check the numbers, so take your time to make the figure extra nice. And in the Discussion you want to add a limitation, such as ‘this was a sample of college students’, and say that ‘more research is needed.’ You know, a little blah blah so that nobody can claim that you are overgeneralizing your results and all. It’ll come easy-peesy once you’ve gone through this process a few times.” 

That was it. The big secret. Follow those steps and the manuscript will fly through the peer-review process and your CV grows one publication longer. Or you end up with toast. Or something. 

“Not to belabor the cooking analogy,” Bear started up again, “but it’s sort of like a health inspector saying that a kitchen is clean based off of how good the food looks. They don’t really want to check the equipment and they don’t really want to check the expiration dates on the ingredients. They just want to ensure the food coming out of the kitchen looks pretty.” 

Cal had a puzzled look on his face. It was an involuntary look of bewilderment. If he was quicker he would have just agreed with whatever Bear was saying just to get him to stop talking. 

“Because the health inspector also is a restaurant owner.” Bear continued to clarify. “If they judge the other restaurant owners easily, then the other owners will judge them easily and they can all keep cooking as fast as they want. It’s a big ol’ food cooking party. And the best part is, that unlike real restaurants, there are no customers. Everybody can make as much food as you can. And then all the restaurant owners can get together once in a while and all enjoy some back-slapping fun over a few beers as they toast about how good their food looks.” As pleased as Cal was that Bear seemed to be passionate about something, Cal really wished Bear would stop talking now. Cal just didn’t want to hear that science was a paint-by-the-numbers activity. 

As much as you want to believe there is more of an art to the writing process, or that the peer-review process is a better quality filter, it was impossible to argue with results. The Harris Aggression Lab flatout knew how to publish scientific articles at a speedy rate. And when the lab’s reputation and livelihood is dependent on the quantity of publications, it seems rational to build the lab’s operation on meeting their needed quota of publications. 

“There’s more to it than that though, right?” Cal asked Bear hoping that Bear knowingly left out the parts about how doing good science is a purposeful endeavor.

“Sorry, but no. This is what we get paid to do: Turn numbers into publications.”

It was an impersonal response. And perhaps it was too brutally honest for Cal to process at the moment. Cal wanted the numbers to actually to be meaningful because that would make their work meaningful and that would mean that he wasn’t just another drone in a factory churning out widgets for “the man.” But it wasn’t. Their work as graduate students was literally just turning rows and columns into scientific publications. It was so far detached from the reality of what they claimed to be studying that it didn’t matter whether those numbers represented aggression or love or hate or the yield of corn per acre in the fields that surrounded Bridgeport. 

“That doesn’t sound very satisfying. That doesn’t sound like science, it sounds like factory work.”

The more Cal thought about it, the worse it got. At least people working in a factory know that they’re just making widgets. There’s an honesty to that work. If researchers are just doing factor work too, then they are also delusional because they don’t even know they’re doing factory work. 

“Again with this soul-nourishing crap,” Bear let out an exasperated exhale at his idealistic friend. “It must be exhausting to constantly be disappointed. Look. I hate to be the one to tell you, but we are basically doing factory work here.” 

Once published, the Harris Aggression Lab would take the extra step of making hashtags for each of their studies, creating figures specifically formatted for sharing on social media, and oftentimes preparing short videos where Dr. Harris himself would give the 30-second summary of the study (which always appeared with a big green “Donate Now! button that would take you to the donation portal on lab’s website). 

The lab also applied their research skills into monitoring the amount of social media likes they got with their posts. They tinkered with how to word things to get maximum impact, which times of the day were best to post new studies, etc. All this information about social media impact was itself compiled into spreadsheets, those numbers would be crunched, and the lab obsessed about business-sounding jargon such as “impact metrics” and “market reach” and “engagement ratios.” The lab also obsessed about finding new metrics to obsess over. To an outsider, it may be hard to tell whether this was a lab that studied aggression or if this was a lab that studied how to effectively market aggression research. The lab was not merely the manufacturers of their product, they also were their own marketing department. And more than most labs, there was a fairly direct link between the lab’s online presence and their ability to bring in funding. 

Another consequence of the emphasis on social media marketing was that as the summary of the articles got more concise and more “shareable,” which is what they called their formatting of the articles for social media consumption, the more the nuance got lost and the sharper the take-home message became. Real data can be messy. Studies don’t always work out perfectly. Scientific publications are filled with nuance and qualifications and phrases the researchers use to hedge their certainty. Although scientifically responsible, the hair-splitting nuance of scientific publications makes the take-home messages wordy, limp, and not punchy. 

The nuance was sanded out of the lab’s videos and social media posts with clever omissions and lawyerly wording that was technically true but obscured any results that were not quite “on brand.” The end result was a highly-confident final product that was devoid of any qualifications or hesitation. The social media posts were filled with definitive and confident action verbs. The take-home from the studies was boiled down to information that people could digest in the small windows of time they used for browsing the information in their social media feed. The information was made bite-sized and ready to reshare or retweet. A click of the button was all it took to amplify the lab’s latest study from the Harris Aggression Lab demonstrating that violent media causes aggressive behaviors.

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