Negative Results Should be a Positive

Albert Einstein once said “Failure is success in progress.” Winston Churchill agreed, saying, “success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” But too often in academic science, a result that fails to support the tested hypothesis is discarded, never to be shared or further investigated. This is disastrous for scientific and technological progress.

Science is meant to be transparent. For science and society to progress, all scientific studies should be published to the broader community. But this doesn’t happen. This failure and inability to publish negative results is detrimental to scientific progress and should be immediately fixed.

Most academic scientists need a high publication output with a high citation rate to receive competitive grants that fund their research and enable promotions. This “publish or perish” culture in academia forces researchers to produce “publishable” results. And for a result to be “publishable”, it most likely has to be a positive result that supports the tested hypothesis. Studies that produce negative results often end up buried in the lab’s archive, never to see the light of day.

5-stages-of-bad-data

Retrieved from: https://theupturnedmicroscope.com/comic/the-5-stages-of-bad-data/

But most science is the production of negative results. Not publishing these results wastes U.S. taxpayer money, as federally funded scientists may be unknowingly repeating the same “failed” experiments as previous studies. The efficiency of scientific progression would drastically improve if negative results were published.

This bias against negative results has a big impact on scientists, especially young scientists in graduate school. Instead of being viewed in a positive light, negative results are often associated with flawed or poorly designed studies and are therefore viewed as a negative reflection on the scientist. The inability to publish negative results threatens to stunt not only the progression of science, but the United States’ ability to train the next generation of scientists.

Recommendation

The U.S. Congress should add language to the NSF Authorization and Appropriation that requires the NSF to annually show that 50% of all NSF funding resulted in validated negative results or results that invalidated previously accepted science.

 

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