Land-use Metaphor in Scholarly Communication – METHOD / APPROACH, PT. 1(DRAFT)

Author’s note: This post is a rough draft of an methods/approach section to an article that I am publicly writing on this blog. I’ve previously written and posted an Introduction section. The first ten posts on this blog are a series of ~15-minute daily writing exercises I conducted, and posted immediately after, in order to develop better writing habits. Mostly, the previous ten posts collect my thoughts in the moment as I overcome some of my writing myths and hurdles. This current post is the product of five days (Mon-Fri) writing, whose activity I reported on daily at twitter. I left the draft untouched over the weekend. The following Monday morning, I re-read the post quickly, allowing for minor tweaks, and then posted it. I hope to continue writing one section of this paper per week until I have a full first draft, at which point I will submit it to a journal peer-review. From then, I will conduct my revisions privately.

Land-use Metaphor in Scholarly Communication (DRAFT)


Why do we use ‘fishing expedition’ for exploratory analyses? A fishing expedition requires a huge amount of preparation and planning, and it has a clear goal. A ‘shotgun approach’ seems a much better metaphor.” -Daniël Lakens, tweet, Jan. 19, 2021.

A tweet from psychologist Daniël Lakens helps demonstrate, in brief, the mechanics of our approach in this paper. Lakens identifies that “fishing expedition” is a metaphor which is commonly used to describe exploratory analysis. He questions why this is the case and suggests an alternative. Whereas a (literal) fishing expedition requires a “huge amount of preparation and planning” and has “a clear goal,” Lakens implies these are not characteristics of an exploratory analysis. Therefore, the comparison between the two is unsuitable. To Lakens, a “shotgun approach” is a better match to characterize exploratory analysis. A shotgun approach, as Wiktionary defines it, is an approach “in which the subject is indiscriminate and haphazard, using breadth, spread, or quantity in lieu of accuracy, planning, etc.” 


To recap, this tweet exhibits three basic mechanics to be used in this paper: 

  • identification of a metaphor in circulation; 
  • case-making for why that metaphor is or is not suitable, and
  • case-making for a replacement, if the prior metaphors are not suitable.


Replies to Lakens’ tweet exhibited occurrences to be expected when working with metaphors. Commenters offered humorous alternatives, such as the “dynamite fishing approach,” while others suggested alternatives, like trawl fishing, which appeared to contain sturdy mapping between the two concepts. Lakens agreed that trawling worked as a metaphor because, in both concepts, “you filter out everything that fits […] but also a lot of things you didn’t want.” And putting a finer point on it: “you have a net that will make sure you catch every small fish (every p < 0.05), even if they are worthless and you should have let them go.”


We can surmise from this that:

  • a catchy metaphor may invite exploration on the extent of mapping between the two concept. 


One reply noted that the fishing expeditions metaphor actually comes from the legal domain. Per Wikipedia, a fishing expedition is an “informal, pejorative term for a non-specific search for information, especially incriminating information… most frequently organized by policing authorities.” Catchy metaphors can become commonplace to the point that they transcend their original context. However, catchiness does not fulfill what makes a metaphor a sound metaphor. If we consider Lakens’ original criticism to be valid–that fishing expeditions require much planning and have a specific target, and are thus a poor fit for exploratory analysis–then we can see that the fishing expedition is a wrong fit for pre-trial procedures as well.


This demonstrates that:

  • vividness or catchiness can propel metaphors to wide-usage beyond their original context, but
  • popular-usage of a metaphor does not necessarily signal the presence of a sound metaphor. 

[Sidebar: Covering similar territory, Jim Lumsden published a post on April Fool’s Day in 2019 for Prolific blog, in which he wrote a spoof product press release for something called the Prolific Fishing Tool. In it, Lumsden parodically wrote that the “new P-Fishing tool guarantees you a statistically significant result, whatever hypothesis you choose,” by selecting a study URL and choosing an effect size, after which the tool would launch “20 parallel studies, “recalculate your output variables after every submission,” and “hit the breaks” as soon as one study “crosses that famous 0.05 threshold.” If the P-Fishing tool failed to “result in the Nature paper you’ve always wanted,” then you could “supercharge your science with the AI-powered P-Trawlerfishing tool.”]

Finally, we can look at responses to Lakens’ assertion that a shotgun approach would make for a better metaphor. One user wrote that people “shooting with a shotgun still point it in the general direction of the target. It’s just more forgiving to inaccuracy.” It is slightly unclear if this point is being made in favor of the shotgun approach metaphor or not, but it did demonstrate how the shotgun approach metaphor would operate differently than the fishing expedition metaphor. 


Another reply said that the commenter was trying to “remove all gun-related metaphors from [their] vocabulary.” This commenter seemed to be expressing an intent to remove  casual normalization of unnecessary firearm language from conversations, which are a highly-pervasive feature in the English language. Whether the two concepts–exploratory analysis and shotgun approach–mapped well together was besides the point of this reply. Since this particular tweet-reply gained no engagement, we may look at another of Lakens’ tweets, which did receive much feedback, to demonstrate a final point about making useful metaphors. 

The arc of the scientific universe is long, but it bends toward transparency.” -Daniël Lakens, tweet, Feb, 27 2021.

In this tweet, Lakens attempts to express a feeling that progress in open science (transparency) is slow but steady. He does so by interpolating a famous quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 speech delivered on steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, in which the Civil Rights Leader said “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Superficially, the open science movement (target) is the Civil Rights movement (source) is a logical conceptual metaphor, from the standpoint that both movements seek to improve society, and both push against the status quo to do so, which causes progress to be slow.  From a values-based standpoint, it is considered by some (myself included) to be too crass to draw these types of comparisons, because of its potential to lessen the weight of the source domain; in this case, the Civil Rights movement. Many commenters noted the inappropriateness of this analogy, while others defended it.

As a reductio ad absurdum, we could follow this further to say that because scholars labor without pay for organizations who profit from their work, that scholars are slaves. While there is a certain logic at play here, to actually make that comparison in a world where actual slavery still occurs and the effects of abolished slavery can still be felt, would do a special kind of disservice to slaves and slave-descendents. It diminishes and dismisses trauma, or at least can give that distinct impression. This is not to say that we should overlook how knowledge workers are routinely taken advantage of. Far from it. Instead, we could seek out better, more appropriate metaphors through which to express that idea. Or if we genuinely fear sacrificing intellectual insight from drawing such a comparison, we would do well to note that while X and Y may share space on a spectrum, that they are on far ends of it.

While some might find it unnecessary to allow a critical or moral analysis to stand in the way of otherwise logically-sound metaphors, it is intellectually dishonest to ignore the ways in which our words affect the world around us. When we find ourselves dismissing earnest, poorly-received reactions by a substantial portion of our audience, then we may question whether we are poorly communicating or not. And to think intelligently about the metaphors we use in our fields is to care about communicating well.


Perhaps the least controversial way to phrase the point here is to say that: 

  • a metaphor is not useful if it evokes other thoughts to the point of distraction.


With Lakens’ tweet, we have drawn out several basic mechanics to consider when thinking about metaphors. We now direct our attention to slightly more sophisticated mechanics in this paper’s purview: highlighting, hiding, and self-fulfilling prophecies. 


[To be continued in a Part 2 of this section.]

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