Is it because of the coffee, or because of the mug?
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently ran a promotion targeted specifically at past contributors to its most prestigious academic journal, Science. “A special offer for published Science authors,” the email read, offering a 20% discount on next year’s membership. Seems like an unremarkable marketing email, the kind the average professional deletes in droves every morning over coffee.
However, the email reminded its recipient that they weren’t just any average professional, or even just any average academic. The enticing perk of this membership offer was a special mug: a matte black coffee cup, with a plump shape and a pleasing red interior, emblazoned with the words “I published in Science.” The name of the famous journal was set in its characteristic serif typeface, the immediately recognizable brand of scientific quality and prestige. The message of the mug was simple: you have achieved something remarkable—why not celebrate your success while supporting the AAAS?
The image of the mug was superimposed over an aesthetically appealing backdrop—a close-up image of iridescent feathers. This was a good graphic design choice. The feathers’ shimmering green and black colors complement the red accents of the mug, making it pop. In addition, the pattern made by the feathers is recognizably organic and remarkably beautiful—a representation of the nature that readers of Science are hoping to understand. However, the choice of plumage—likely the feathers of the male peafowl—is apt for another reason. It immediately calls to mind other attributes of a peacock: pride and pleasure in the display of remarkable endowments.
Are successful scientists like peacocks, using their ornaments (read: fancy mugs) to assert their superiority and attract the attention of those who have the power to ensure the future of their research program? If we take this metaphor seriously, the “mates” of most scientists are not the opposite sex, but rather grant-making organizations such as the NSF and the NIH. They are the ones that make or break scientific ambitions, but they are not likely to notice to whom the “I published in Science” mug in the breakroom belongs.
However, not having an audience of peahens does not stop the peacock from strutting. As Darwin observed in The Descent of Man, “ornaments of all kinds, whether permanently or temporarily gained, are sedulously displayed by the males,” whether or not females are present. The peacock, he observes, “evidently wishes for a spectator of some kind, and, as I have often seen, will shew off his finery before poultry, or even pigs.” In an academic setting, the “poultry” and “pigs” are best likened to other professors, support staff, students, and anyone else who may take a moment to read the mug. The emblems of fitness, whether fancy feathers or branded mugs, play an equally useful role in establishing hierarchies as they do in reproduction.
The email was presumably sent to all published contributors who aren’t current AAAS members, including Daniël Lakens, a psychologist at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. “This is real,” he tweeted, with a picture of the mug, “Remind your colleagues how much better you are, every single coffee break.”
The scientific twittersphere found humor in the mug, and contemplated a possible suite of Science publication-related drinking vessels. Atlantic science writer Ed Yong wondered if they would also offer a “I was retracted from Science” mug, while NYU postdoc Tommy Sprague proposed a “rejected from Science, again” whiskey tumbler.
The humor functioned as a way to keep the scientific community in check. Everyone could agree that getting a paper into Science was a huge deal, but bragging about it in mug form was simply not okay.
Historians of science have argued that modesty has been a key asset to scientists wishing to establish their credibility and authority. In their classic work on Robert Boyle and the emerging practice of scientific experimentation in the 17th century, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer identify several “technologies” that allowed Boyle to present himself as a knowledgeable and trustworthy expert. There was the material technology of the experiment itself, as well as a number of social and literary technologies. Key among these was the practice of “modest witnessing.” When Boyle described his experiments, he included detailed descriptions of the things that did not work in addition to those that did. By describing his disappointments along with his triumphs, he suggested he was a trustworthy narrator and a reliable knower of nature. Modesty became part of the social foundation of scientific practice and a keystone of our ability to put trust in scientific knowledge.
The foundations of scientific knowledge are not likely to be unraveled by a promotional tchotchke, but the uncomfortable laughter the mug generated on social media is indicative of the uneasy relationship in the scientific world between acknowledgement and display. Any scientist would be more than proud to get a paper in Science, and would likely pin the article to the bulletin board in front of his or her lab, making sure that same recognizable serifed logo was clearly visible to the other “poultry” in the department. This is an acceptable form of showing off, or what the kids would call a #humblebrag. The blatant pride expressed by the mug is anything but humble.
Science is an important publication because community consensus among scientists says it is. Articles published in the journal are the result of months or years of work on behalf of many people, none of which is remunerated by AAAS directly. Prestige is the only payment. Strategically, the AAAS has identified those who have successfully published in Science as its most dedicated stakeholders. Like alumni from elite colleges, the contributors have relied on and benefited from the prestige associated with the brand, and the most invested in its continued success.
I do not know how successful the campaign was and how many “I published in Science” mugs made their way out into the world. But those who did get the mug are left with an interesting quandary: should you pick it up with your right hand, to show the world (or at least your immediate colleagues) your achievement? Or pick it up with your left, with the message facing only you, to remind yourself that all your hard work paid off?
 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, vol. 2, (London: John Murray, 1871), 86, https://archive.org/stream/descentofmansele02darw#page/86/mode/2up.