On the importance of being negative

Stephen Curry in The Guardian: “The latest paper from my group, published just over a week ago in the open access journal PeerJ, reports an unusual result. It was not the result we were looking for because it was negative: our experiment failed.

Nevertheless I am pleased with the paper – 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.

The scientific literature has long been skewed by a preponderance of positive results, largely because journals are keen to nurture their reputations for publishing significant, exciting research – new discoveries that change the way we think about the world. They have tended to look askance at manuscripts reporting beautiful hypotheses undone by the ugly fact of experimental failure. Scientific reporting inverts the traditional values of news media: good news sells. This tendency is reinforced within academic culture because our reward mechanisms are so strongly geared to publication in the most prestigious journals. In the worst cases it can foster fraudulent or sloppy practices by scientists and journals. A complete record of reporting positive and negative results is at the heart of the AllTrials campaign to challenge the distortion of clinical trials for commercial gain….

Normally that would have been that. Our data would have sat on the computer hard-drive till the machine decayed to obsolescence and was thrown out. But now it’s easier to publish negative results, so we did. The change has come about because of the rise of online publishing through open access, which aims to make research freely available on the internet.

The most significant change is the emergence of new titles from nimble-footed publishers aiming to leverage the reduced costs of publishing digitally rather than on paper. They have created open access journals that judge research only on its originality and competency; in contrast to more traditional outlets, no attempt is made to pre-judge significance. These journals include titles such as PLOS ONE (the originator of the concept), F1000 Research, ScienceOpen, and Scientific Reports, as well as new pre-print servers, such as PeerJ Preprints or bioaRXiv, which are seeking to emulate the success of the ArXiv that has long served physics and maths researchers.

As far as I know, these outlets were not designed specifically for negative results but the shift in the review criteria – and their lower costs – have opened up new opportunities and negative results are now creeping out of the laboratory in greater numbers. PLOS ONE has recently started to highlight collections of papers reporting negative findings; Elsevier, one of the more established publishers, has evidently sensed an opportunity and just launched a new journal dedicated to negative results in the plant sciences….(More)”