Oct 7, 2011

Improving scientific research by reporting negative results.

Becoming successful in the scientific world is not an easy task. Grants, economic resources or development level of the country where a project is being carried out are among the parameters influencing the career of a young, motivated scientist. However, one of the most important factors is reaching the desired results. At this point we could start a fruitful discussion about this issue: what are the desired results?

Whenever a new research line or project is started, it is directed towards the accomplishment of defined goals. However, it is very unusual to achieve them following a preconceived plan. In this sense, scientists are prompt to interpret their results towards what they should obtain and not to what is really happening. This is normally due to the pressure scientists are exposed to in terms of getting only positive results, since it gives the impression to be the fastest way to publish.

Nevertheless, the scientific community appears to forget that a positive result has its real value when it is compared to a negative one. This is not strange since we are used to read research papers where the negative control experiments are the punch line of the work and also, the negative results are normally part of the paper outline in an attempt to highlight the significance of the final outcome.

It is important to mention as well, the big amount of papers in different research areas where a principle or concept has tried to be proven wrong. Without “negative results” many theories would not be accepted nowadays. At this moment I would love to know what Prof. Hawking is thinking about the recent discovery of neutrinos possibly faster than light. This result could be inconsistent with Einstein theory of relativity, the main pillar of modern physics, but how would have this project started without the results of many other scientist before? If this new result is finally right, will future generations consider Stephen Hawking or Einstein’s theories wrong or negative or as the key which enabled the progress to the real answer?

In this sense it is important to highlight the existence of journals willing to report negative, null or simply the “non-desirable” results that in many occasions are .responsible of a project’s success and sometimes the grounds to start new research avenues. However, there is still a lot of work to do in this area and hopefully the idea of reporting negative results turns into a way to avoid tailored publications according to the goals intended to obtain and not reproducing the true story. The final consequence would be the end of misleading results and a real improvement in scientific research.

Written by Dr. Amparo Ruiz for The All Results Journals.

1 comment:

  1. The problem is many experiments test whether an hypothesis is true in a way such that, if the test fails, that doesn't prove that the hypothesis is false and the related scientific question remains unknown. Knowing that a certain experimental design or data analysis approach hasn't worked can be useful to not repeat already made mistakes, but it's different than advancing scientific knowledge and I understand editors want to at least keep the two things separated.