Neglect Negative Data No More

Monday, February 9, 2015

Most scientists are passionate about their jobs. We’re driven by a desire to understand how the world works and ways we can improve it. We live for the major ‘a-ha’ moment, that discovery that will have a major impact our field. In the case of biomedical research, these advances are of personal interest to the public and a primary source of health information offered by the media.

Breakthroughs are the exception, not the rule

But there is more to know than the public is aware of. What we scientists know is that working in a lab is not a series of daily achievements and exciting, groundbreaking results. Great discoveries usually come after a series of frustrating failed efforts. It’s a long, hard, and often an emotionally draining road. “Eureka” moments are the exceptions and not the norm. Frequently experiments do not generate the expected outcome, results do not support the model, or the data contradict the initial hypothesis. In other words, you have negative results. The data are there; they are just different than expected.

Negative data piling up on your desk likely hides a good amount of useful information. Why waste all the hard work by forgetting about it?

Coming to terms with negative data

Many of us feel a sense of failure when an experiment doesn’t yield the expected outcome. As scientists, we tend to neglect the importance of  negative results. These results are rarely exciting or interesting unless they provide information to contradict a previously established model or theory. We often think publishing negative data is bad for our careers. If we want to get them published, we usually have to go to a journal with a much lower impact factor than we would have hoped when starting the project.

Working on negative data can become a low or nonexistent priority. Why waste time organizing and publishing them? There are so many other things to do (e.g., write a review, attend a scientific conference, work on a grant renewal, and keep up with the lab work).

For many of us, especially students and postdocs who have a limited time in a lab and want to advance quickly in their careers, obtaining negative data is an alarm to move on to a different project and never look back. As a consequence, negative results end up in a file that is rarely opened again or not at all.

Reevaluate the value of negative data

I believe we need to reconsider how we view negative data. It can still be informative. Did you really put in all that  hard work into your experiment only to then forget about the outcome?

New research opportunities may arise for determining why the results did not match the hypothesis. Moreover, making these data publically available supports your colleagues in the field, who can save energy, time, and resources on an assay or project that has previously been shown not to work.

Why publish negative data?

Publishing negative data could mitigate stigma associated with so-called failed experiments. The hard work could still be appreciated. You would be able to show that the experiments were done in the way they were originally proposed.
Publishing such data also would help with transparency (an important consideration for Federally-funded or conducted research).

Many scientific journal already publish negative results (Bob O'Hara, Nature, 471, 448–449, 2011). If you don’t want to put together a paper entirely on the negative data, don’t just forget them in a drawer forever, but try to make them part of another publication, included as at least one figure along with the rest of results.

Negative findings are part of the scientific enterprise

You might not be happy when an experiment isn’t  working; but that doesn’t mean you can’t love the research process. Remember, there is still a great learning opportunity with negative data, for finding answers to interesting questions.

Not every piece of negative data should be considered for publication. But, we should take the negative data out of the drawers and spend a little bit of time organizing them. You might find the data will be informative for others in the field and the overall scientific community.

Category: Science