Negativity in politics is a drag, a coarsening of the debate that drowns out meaningful discussions of facts and policies. When it comes to science, however, we need more negativity — negative findings, that is.
Critics of the status quo in science have long lamented journals’ tendency not to publish negative findings, meaning studies that fail to support their hypotheses. That doesn’t mean scientists fail to find effects in such studies. Quite the opposite. For instance, a study that finds a drug doesn’t work against an infection might be important — and actionable — information.
Yet positive results talk louder — they’re more appealing to readers and will get more media coverage. But that means researchers aren’t able to read about studies that might discourage them from pursuing a fruitless path or might give them valuable insights into where to look next.
That attitude appears to be changing. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, a well-regarded publication for the specialty, will be devoting its entire November issue to “negative” results.
“There’s a lot of great research out there and sometimes the results are negative,” said Brian Lacy, co-editor in chief of the journal. “So many of these negative studies are more important than positive results.”
The journal began calling for articles for the issue — the idea for which Lacy credits to his co-editor, Brennan Spiegel — in early 2016. It received nearly 100, he said, many of which were “great studies from well-known investigators” grateful for the chance to find a home for papers they didn’t think they could get published elsewhere. Several of the articles “will actually change how people will practice,” Lacy said.
Although the AJG might be the most prominent journal to take such a step, it’s not the only one. The Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine has been solely publishing “non-confirmatory” data since 2002. As the journal explains: “publishing well documented failures may reveal fundamental flaws and obstacles in commonly used methods, drugs or reagents such as antibodies or cell lines, ultimately leading to improvements in experimental designs and clinical decisions.”
Somewhat newer are the Journal of Negative Results, a biology and ecology publication, which launched in 2004, and the Journal of Pharmaceutical Negative Results, which dates back to 2010.
But these important journals aren’t cited all that often. That speaks to science’s strong positivity bias. That bias exists for many reasons, from the human desire to go for big, splashy stories, to the fact that successful clinical trials sell more reprints. And the bias drives research: When scientists know they need positive results to get into the big journals, which in turn earns them grants, promotions, and tenure, they’ll be pushed in that direction. And it means that we need some serious efforts, and incentives, for publishing negative studies, to help balance out those directed at positive publications.
As for the gastro journal, for the moment the negative studies’ issue is a pilot with potential but no firm plans for a second issue. However, the editors have discussed publishing at least one negative study a month in the future, Lacy said.
That would be welcome. Though we could use less negativity in our politics, when it comes to science, bring it on.
This article was corrected to indicate that the entire November issue will be devoted to negative findings.