Negative results = no results, or contribution to knowledge?


120x600oaNegative results, results which do not support the expressed hypothesis or results which fall too far from the expected results are rarely analyzed. These results are not published as often either. There is a bias, so called publication bias towards publishing the positive, to publish the results which support the hypothesis. This is not seen as a research ethical problem. This problem is partly due to publish-or-perish culture; there is a competition to publish and to get citations to be able to be in the competition for research funding. Publication bias gives a twisted image of the research area and research literature. It can even lead to researchers manipulating research data.

Scientific journals are not interested in publishing replicated studies because they lack in news value. They are not interested in to publish negative results although a lot of important research which we regard as the truth has not been possible to replicate later. Some postdocs went as far as creating Journal of Negative Results: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. This is not a sustainable solution. Instead, more research data should be made available and the norms in scientific communication should be changed: researchers should write exact what they have done. Maybe this has not been possible earlier with print journals with  word limits. With electronic journals and open access this is now possible. Many open access journals are happy to give more space for extended methodological descriptions and discussions.

Ben Goldacre: What doctors don’t know about the drugs they prescribe – tells about a study which showed that some university students had the ability to see into the future. We hear only about the times when someone has been able to do something which maybe leads us to believe in it. We believe that a scientific article is correct, that certain medicine work well against e.g. depression. The fact that we do not know is that only the positive results have been reported. So, we hear only of the cases when the oracle was correct, not the times it was wrong. Within medicine and pharmacy research of reporting of only the positive could be lethal. Goldacre gives an example of a medicine which has been studied in a number of studies, 38 with positive results and 36 with negative results. 37 of the studies with positive results were published. Meanwhile only 3 of the negative studies where published. In The Power of Negative Thinking by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel writes about the same phenomenon: only a fraction of the studies were possible to replicate.

Researchers should be encouraged to publish negative results and it should also become easier to publish negative results. Peer J, open access journal in medicine and biology writes on their web page that they publish methodologically and theoretically correct articles – the results does not have be news worthy. PEER J writes that ”negative/inconclusive results are acceptable. They also write that all research data should be available for the reviewer and if possible made available even for others. They even publish the reviewer’s comments. Maybe one of the reasons Peer J is able to work this way is that it is a newly started open access journal. Scientific publishing is quite traditional and protectionistic area: publishers are not quick to implement new ways to work.

To work for knowledge ambiguous results should be published and research data should be made easily available, which is what open access works for.

Watch Ben Goldacre’s TED Talks on publication bias and what it could have for effect.

The film is about 14 mins long.

Read also: Fanelli, D. (2012). Negative results are sidappearing from most diciplines and countries. Scientometrics, 90, ss. 891-904. 10.1007/s11192-011-0494-7

Read even short essays on negative results in Marin Ecology Porgress Series from 1999. The essays talk about negative results and remind us that even positive results should be eyed with skepticism.

Pieta Eklund