Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Why are negative results impossible to publish?

One of the critical pillars of scientific research is that it is reproducible and free of bias.  That is how other scientists and the public are able to validate and trust new scientific work.  More recently than ever, with the age of “publish or perish” upon us, it seems that new research is not held to the same level of scrutiny that it was decades ago.  This is largely because there are not enough qualified people to do the unpaid work of rigorously peer-reviewing papers.  Research funders and university executives have created an environment such that the number of publications is just as (if not more) important the quality of them, as this is one of the most important criterion for awarding tenure-track positions or research funding.
            Additionally, publishing negative results in scientific journals is very challenging, if not impossible as journals claim that negative data fails to draw readership.  You’d be hard pressed to find any recent peer-reviewed journal article where the entire results of the study were that negative.  While I understand that new scientific work needs to “prove” something novel, negative research results are often not included, or are spun (sometimes using immoral statistical methods) to make the data appear positive, leading to massive amounts of bias in the field. 
            What some people fail to see is that, in some cases, there is nothing wrong with publishing negative results.  There are even cases where they can greatly benefit society, such as for debunking public health myths.  Pharmaceutical research is an area where publishing negative results is incredibly important, yet these results are so often passed over, because a paper will never be selected for a journal if the sum of the research is that “these 1000 molecules are ineffective at agonizing the receptor.” In that field, having the need for new drugs to come to the market to make money for the companies can lead to additional bias, as the FDA requires drugs to be stringently tested in clinical trials.

            All in all, the publish and perish culture of today’s scientific research coupled with the inability to publish negative results is leading to significant issues with bias and reproducibility that will become detrimental if change is not enacted.

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