May 20, 2011

Where negative is not a failure ---- Research!

A writer commenting on the results from The New England Journal of Medicine once stated: “What happens to the results that could not yield a dramatic outcome or worse, the opposite if what a researcher hope? It ends up in the lab drawer”. These must be set free.

Knowing about negative results does not mean a failure if this is the way to keep out other researchers repeating the same experiments. After all, it is important for other researchers to know what does not work. We learn from our mistakes, and, even if we consider it as a failure (they are not), we are inching forward to success. Imagine watching television under candle light if Edison gave up after failing ten thousand times while working on the invention of the light bulb. That is what research normally is.

In this post, we’ve selected what famous people and philosophers quoted on mistakes, errors and negative results when it comes to Science. Enjoy!

Famous quotes: 

• "Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t." --- Thomas A. Edison

• "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."--- Albert Einstein

• "Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth." --- Jules Verne

• "Mistakes are the portals of discovery."----James Joyce

• "Mistakes are merely steps up the ladder." ---Paul J. Meyer

•  "An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field."--- Niels Bohr

• "Science, in the very act of solving problems, creates more of them." --Abraham Flexner

• "Experiment adds to knowledge, credulity leads to error." ---- Anonymous

• "A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are portals of discovery." --- James Joyce.

•  "Results! Because, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won`t work."--- Thomas A. Edison

• "Science never solves problems without creating ten more." ----George Bernard Shaw

• "An inventor fails 999 times, and if he succeeds once, he is in. He treats his failures simply as practice shots."--- Charles F. Kettering

• "Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward towards success."--- Charles F. Kettering

• "Honorable errors do not count as failures in science but as seeds for progress in the quintessential activity of correction."--- Stephen Jay Gould

• "If the experiment works then, you must be using the wrong one. An experiment usually has a tendency to fail."--- Anonymous

• "There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes."---Richard Buckminster Fuller.

• "I never quit until I get what I’m after. Negative results are just what I’m after. They are just as valuable to me as positive results." ---Thomas A. Edison

• "Every great improvement has come after ten repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes right in the first time." --- Charles F. Kettering

• "Successes teach you nothing. Failures teach you everything. Making mistakes is the most important thing you can do." --- James Dyson

The next time when decide to give up something because it fails, remember all these great men; success may just be around the corner!

Written by Shalini P. Burra for The All Results Journals.

NOTE FROM DAVID ALCANTARA: Do not give up your experiments but, most important, do not forget to publish your negative results!


  1. Very interesting!
    Found this one missing: "If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment" --- Ernest Rutherford

  2. "It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man."
    Richard P. Feynman

  3. in the future publications, it is an interesting idea to put all negative results and failed approaches in the supplementary materials.

  4. Not only an expert is a also a women...maybe better use "a person" but I like your statement

  5. “The end of surprise would be the end of science. To this extent, the scientist must constantly seek and hope for surprises.”
    - – Robert Friedel

  6. “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” – Attributed to Thomas J. Watson

  7. “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett
    Worstward Ho (1983)

  8. I totally agree. My frustratingly negative results during Ph.D were the cherry on top of thesis! This also allowed me to be open minded during postdoctoral research period.

  9. I agree!! I strongly think you can learn more from your failure than from your success!!!

  10. The only failure is not doing proper scientific research. If the results are not positive, it doesn't mean anything (apart from that they may not attract much research interest). Thanks for bringing up this issue.

  11. Robert (Bob) ParsonsJune 9, 2011 at 9:27 PM

    I cannot agree that negative results don't mean anything. To the contrary, they can mean a lot, by eliminating a fruitless line of inquiry and narrowing the the remaining possibilities. Knowing what does not work is an important part of discovering what DOES work. We learn as much (if not more) from our failures as we do from our successes.

  12. In my opinion there are 3 kinds of Mistakes
    1- Low impact - easy to fix, lesson learnt important. Money and or delaying on the lead time.
    2- Medium impact - actions plan needed, as well as Root Cause determination. Medium cost impact or stretched lead times.
    3- High impact which consumes lifes. Incalculable values lost, but which must have the ROOT CAUSE determinated and attached an ACTION PLAN

    All them require learning of the situation and do not act on the effect all the time !

  13. We had negative results that were eventually found to be more significant then otherwise..... I think, negative result is a relative term depending on what one is looking for!

  14. I agree with Syed, what do we call a negative result? Is it the crash of one’s theory due to a robust experimental answer which uncovers what we did not ask or integrated in our theory? This may be called "negative" from a career (funding agency, etc) point of view, but it is normally called discovery and the progress of science is based on discoveries. I agree that science will become a more efficient business, if more of the ambiguous results would have a place to be shared between scientific communities in a publication format. Especially for Life sciences, the questions and systems we study are far more complex than we hypothesize, variations in the results we get between models, laboratories, days, scientists, etc are a golden mine- hard to work, but extremely valuable. I think that the majority of the scientists understand that and conferences, meetings serve as a platform for digging this gold out and coming with new ideas. I also believe that a lot of scientists are cautious to publish their not yet explained “negative” (read: eye opening) results to a larger scientific community, because, like it or not, scientists compete for funding and the current way of managing science does not stimulate financially sharing your “negative” results, which simply speaking are unclassified yet findings.

  15. Jairo Aparecido MartinsJuly 7, 2011 at 1:12 AM

    In my opinion errors can be also considered as deviation of certain established rules or generated when this rule does not cover the fact. Those rules sometimes can generate ideas and become products and or services when the root cause is known. In most of cases errors can bring new thoughts and progressively bring benefits, if you are patient to keep trying. Let's take Thomas Edison, as an example, it is said that he made more than 10,000 times before of its fabulous creation - the light bulb.
    There are Journals which make use of errors to contribute to the scientific society, like Engineering Failure Analysis from ELSEVIER. This Journal brings good tips on how to prevent errors and make a robuster product. I guess there are more Journals with this scope.

  16. Zacharias VoulgarisJuly 7, 2011 at 1:13 AM

    On Jairo's point, a small elaboration. It is interesting to remember that some very significant scientific discoveries were because of "errors", or unexpected deviations from the orthodox scientific method. The discovery of X-rays, for instance, was an error, something would not have been discovered normally.

    So, maybe by "sticking" to the right approach we miss on so many other opportunities for discovery and scientific advancement, just like a musician who never improvises often falls in a stale state in his/her art.

  17. Jairo Aparecido MartinsJuly 7, 2011 at 1:13 AM

    The difficult thing at this process is to commit the error and look at it as an opportunity, like was done in the case of the Velcro, Micro wave, etc... In order to reach this phase I guess some training must be done. You should look at the life in another way, or multiple ways.

  18. from my experience more knoledge is gained from faliure then from success, so the overall final out come is better is faliure had been part of the process

  19. I remember when I was doing my PhD in physics there was someone doing his PhD in chemistry. He was an institution in the department because he had been there so long. His problem was that he was getting a "negative" result, in other words, not the result that was being looked for. His supervisor wouldn't let him write up until he got the "desired" result. The root of the problem, I believe, was funding. So much research is funded by companies now that there is little scope for what used to be called pure research, where no particular result is being sought and anomalous results can be investigated. In this case, if the supervisor didn't come up with the goods, his funding would be axed, so his poor PhD student had to keep trying. I got my PhD and left, so I have no idea how this story ended.

  20. The journals look interesting.

  21. Dear Colleague,

    I think we have to distingish "negative" in term of experiences which not succeed, failed because of different reasons; In this case, their knowledge and reasons allows the community to progress and don't repeat the same errors to perform more rapidly new experiements.
    And negative results with experiments well conducted, without failure but which cannot proove a diffrence in example between two groups or treatments, or a casual/effect relation; and often it's discussed by revewers in statistical terms as non sufficiently powerfull.
    But I think that , in this case, we biase the results because we think a priori that experiments had to conduct to positive results, instead we have to consider that negative results are as important as positive ones because can re-direct our research strategy more rapidly.
    Best regards
    Didier JAMBOU

  22. @Didier: thanks, you made a good point! Publication bias is a bit more complex than that (you can see some of our postings about PB at: but we are working to fight it with our publications. Helping scientist to publish their negative results in a Total Open Access way is our main objective and conversations like this help us to understand scientists' feelings ;)

  23. What a wonderful (and useful) series of quotations. Thanks for the posting. Students are generally taught that they have failed if they get an unexpected outcome. But if the negative result is due to inexperience, then they can learn from that; if the "negative result" is a "real" result, then that's important and potentially opens up new doors for research. Negative results should not be equated with failure! I wrote a Blog on this topic on Sept 1, "Getting the Right Answer". You can see it at

  24. Nagaraj KakanahalliNovember 24, 2011 at 5:18 PM

    Yes, making mistakes made a person an expert, but only correcting and finding solutions to mistakes......

  25. Nagaraj KakanahalliNovember 24, 2011 at 5:19 PM

    what a great quote it is...................."Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t." --- Thomas A. Edison

  26. N. Bohr and T. A. Edison must have read Oscar Wilde: "...Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name men gave to their mistakes."

  27. There are lot of comments and appreciations follow in Researchgate network - Thanks for the spirit.

  28. Hello,
    When using scientific method, it happens sometimes that your hypothesis is not correct. That's fine. A negative return will help to point you in the right direction for postive results. Scientific method is desinged to do that. Yea!

  29. Оливера Стојчева-ТаневаDecember 28, 2011 at 6:09 PM

    I enjoy all these discussions. Negative results, if published successfully (for many journals do not like to publish negative results) will help other scientists make good and valuable meta-analyses, and subsequently, better guidelines to be created. We all should make maximal efforts to try make journals publish negative results.

  30. Negative results are as important as positive results . Trial and error is our way to success . We have to learn from our mistakes .

  31. Really impressive..and i agree equally "results are results" Negative doesn't mean you can't use them..Simply they do not exist..Without negatives, Positives do not have their own importance...Thanks for sharing this idea here