I pitched my idea for a LEGO Minifigure Catalog to both Lego and its preferred publisher several times. They were not interested, so I published it myself with some success. When looking at all those faces, I got curious about their change over time, so we conducted a little study on the topic.
Again, we had difficulties publishing it. Most of the journals we approached did not allow the paper into the review process. It was rejected because it did not lie within the journals' scopes.
Eventually, the International Conference on Human-Agent Interaction (2013) not only accepted the paper, but also gave it an honorable mention. After that, a small press release from our universities' press offices was sufficient to trigger an avalanche of articles and interviews.
It is hard for me to understand how the scientific evaluation could have been so different from the popular one. The paper was never rejected because of flaws in its methodology; it was rejected because of a lack of interest from the editors of journals. What could have caused these opinions to be so different?
The public media focused their reports on the consequences that aggressive toys may have on children. This is rather peculiar, since our study did not investigate this at all. It only established that the LEGO Minifigure faces have changed. One main criticism from journal editors was that the study did not tell us much about how children play.
It appears that the mainstream media is very concerned about the changes in these toys, while scientific editors are perhaps not concerned enough. I believe that objects shape us and that we shape our objects. There is a relationship, but the causalities are difficult, if not impossible, to understand.
This does not fully explain why our study has become such a global media phenomena. Newspapers, radio stations and television shows from all over the world reported on the results. One reason is of course that Lego is a global brand. Most of us can remember playing with Lego in our youth, and it’s still a firm favourite with children today.
Maybe our observations resonated with the media and the public because they stirred up concerns that were already there. It’s clear that people are worried about their childrens' exposure to anger, violence and destruction, but these concerns do not yet have any scientific basis.
At times like these, I take comfort from philosopher Robert M Pirsig, whose seminal work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maitenance became one of the bestselling books to be rejected by more than 100 publishers. The fact remains that novel ideas are difficult to publish.