Monday, January 16, 2017

Finding the Beauty in Negative Results

It has long been known that trying to publish a paper merely to present negative results will not land you in a top-ranked scientific journal, and likely not in any at all. This problem alone can very much be seen as one of the bottlenecks of research in the scientific community.

Imagine for a moment you’re a scientist trying to discover the mechanism behind cancer proliferation. You search the wondrous world of PubMed, absorbing the works of brilliant scientists, and getting an understanding as to the current state of cancer research. What you find are papers on what appears to ‘work’; advances in the field. What you don’t find are all the experiments and hypothesizes that didn’t work. Okay, now what? Well, that may not be so bad, right? You can focus on an aspect/gene of interest that has appeared to show exciting and promising results. But what if your focus was on STAP stem cells?

In 2014, a group of prominent scientists had a famous paper published in Nature describing the successful creation of STAP (Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency) cells, which was thought to be one of the biggest break-throughs in stem cell research at the time. Although, luckily for the scientific community, a peer-review website called PubPeer was also established. On this website, anonymous members of the scientific community posted a multitude of accusations into the legitimacy of the paper and its results. Fellow scientists even repeated the same experiments with vastly different results than the STAP cell paper claimed, thus further proving the paper was a fraud. (It was eventually retracted).

My point? If there wasn’t an established website, such as PubPeer, the fallacies in this paper likely would have taken much longer to be uncovered. This could have led to fellow scientists taking the paper as face value and dedicating countless hours and expense to fall into this ‘rabbit hole’. Publishing negative results could only help the scientific community further have a system of checks and balances, to continue to push science forward. It should be more widely accepted by all tiers of scientific publishing as negative data can still be good data.

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