It's Time For The Academic World To See The Positive Side Of Negative Results

from the go-on,-take-a-chance dept

Techdirt has written many times about the need to move from traditional academic publishing to open access. There are many benefits, including increasing the reach and impact of research, and allowing members of the public to read work that they have often funded, without needing to pay again. But open access is not a panacea; it does not solve all the problems of today’s approach to spreading knowledge. In particular, it suffers from the same serious flaw that afflicts traditional titles: a tendency to focus on success, and to draw a veil of silence over failure. As a new column in Nature puts it:

Scientists have become so accustomed to celebrating only success that we’ve forgotten that most technological advances stem from failure. We all want to see our work saving lives or solving world hunger, and I think the collective bias towards finding positive results in the face of failure is a dangerous motivation.

That’s true, though hardly a new insight. People have been pointing it out for years. But the fact that it still needs to be said shows how little progress has been made in this regard. For example, back in 2015, Stephen Curry, a professor of structural biology at London’s Imperial College, wrote a column in the Guardian entitled “On the importance of being negative“, which explains why negative results matter:

Their value lies in mapping out blind alleys, warning other investigators not to waste their time or at least to tread carefully. The only trouble is, it can be hard to get them published.

Curry noted that Elsevier was aiming to address that problem with the launch of the catchily-named journal “New Negatives in Plant Science”, which was “a platform for negative, unexpected or controversial results”. Unfortunately, looking at the journal’s Web page today, we read: “The Publisher has decided to discontinue the journal New Negatives in Plant Science.” Maybe papers about negative results were simply a bit, well, negative for many people. Undaunted, Cambridge University Press (CUP) is launching its own title in this space:

Experimental Results will offer a place where researchers can publish standalone experimental results “regardless of whether those results are novel, inconclusive, negative or supplementary to other published work.” The journal will also publish the outcome of attempts to reproduce previously published experiments, including those that dispute past findings.

Some journals publish full-paper negative or inconclusive results, but published stand-alone results are a rarity, said CUP.

That’s a welcome move, because the academic world effectively discards huge quantities of knowledge, often hard-won, about things that don’t work, don’t reproduce the results of others, or are simply unclear. Those may be messy and less glamorous than the big successes that hit the headlines and win prizes, but they are valuable nonetheless.

It’s instructive to compare the world of academic publishing with what happens in Silicon Valley. There, failure is celebrated as proof that entrepreneurs have been willing to try new things, and acknowledged as a valuable learning experience. It’s added to CVs with pride, not glossed over like some shameful secret. It’s time to bring some of that enthusiastic willingness to take risks to the rigorous but rather timid world of academia. — and to reward it accordingly.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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Comments on “It's Time For The Academic World To See The Positive Side Of Negative Results”

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a bawks-full of chickens says:

I've been writing sense and TD for years, getting nonsense back.

Time to conclude this experiment, no matter how much fun.

As for this notion: are always inherently WAY too many negative results to go through, with no real way to gauge how smart the "researchers" were in set up, and so on.

I have an elaborate gadget called a brain which, when presented with obvious idiocy like Elon Musk’s "plan" to send rockets to Mars and set off fusion bombs there, just rejects it out of hand by laughing.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I've been writing sense and TD for years, getting nonsense b

Elon Musk… has absolutely nothing to do with this.

no real way to gauge how smart the "researchers" were in set up

Uh, it’s known as "being intelligent enough to read and understand the paper and the original data, if you need to or want to use it yourself. That’s how this shit works. It’s how we have things like computers and medicine and whatnot.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Vaccines, GMO's, Global Warming

Vaccines, they work … problem?
GMOs, apparently no harm from eating … problem w/ corporate BS
global warming, data indicates a problem … some people dont care

I see how it can get political but shooting ones self in the foot is still going to hurt. Yes, they do lie in those ads dont they?

bobob says:

I am having difficulty understanding this article. I am a physicist. I have published "negative" results. I have published results, whatever those are – period. In fact, the question of negative results vs positive results doesn’t really make sense to me as a physicist. What makes sense is whether the results, whatever those are, answers a question the experiment was designed to address, whatever the answer was. A "failure" would be discovering something wrong with the experiment such that the data are not reliable enough to do that.

I can’t answer for people in other fields, especially medicine and biology. There is lots of money involved in those fields and money has a way of getting in the way of science. The answer is certainly not going to come from publishers like Elsevier, though.

The vast majority of physics and mathematics articles that physicists and mathematiciancs would like to publish in journals are available at for anyone to read. Probably 99% of those articles will never lead anywhere, even to a journal article. Arxiv also has sections for computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, statistics, electrical engineering and systems science, and economics.

Finally, what exactly is a positive or negative result? Let’s take the discovery of the higgs at Cern. It was certainly a positive result in that it was the last piece of the Standard Model to be discovered, thus a great positive result in that sense. On the other hand, I would say that most partivle physicists would have rather the higgs not be found. Not finding it would have pointed toward new physics, which would have been much more interesting than just confirming a result that everyone expected. Not finding the higgs would have been a positive result in that sense.

Trying to describe results in terms of positive and negative doesn’t seem to make sense, unless one is trying to sell a product, in which case, it’s not even science. In science, any well done experiment has a positive result no matter what the result is. It might be better to classify experiments in terms of how money depends on the result so that one can determine whether or not the researchers are doing science or marketing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

A "failure" would be discovering something wrong with the experiment such that the data are not reliable enough to do that.

Even that can be interesting. Until people published their result showing faster-than-light neutrinos, they couldn’t find the error in their setup. Then several other teams failed to reproduce the result (meaning we got some useful data) and the experimental error was found.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I think the point is that negative results (which i take as being results which do not support the hypothesis tested) are generally not sexy enough to make it into journals and have a lower impact. It seems like some are trying to promote the negative results into further awareness because they are useful as a positive result in terms of knowledge and future utility.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Another Important Negative Result

Consider the scare over the supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Careful research over the intervening couple of decades has completely failed to replicate that claim. Yet the bogus researcher who started the nonsense in the first place continues to make a living off the anti-vaccination talk circuit by spreading his untruths.

Why? Because a scare claim makes headlines, but its debunking does not.

Jake Mahmood says:

I agree that access to academic archives should be made free. This will also be useful for students during the course of their reports and other work. At this stage it may be useful to have a website to perform the paper on different topics. This site is the best service for writing research paper. Unfortunately, science at the university is not quite developed, and there is not enough budget for it.

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