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Why science needs to publish negative results

March 2, 2015

By Emma Granqvist

An Elsevier publisher argues that an experiment shouldn't have to show positive results to earn its place in the published literature

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2016: This journal has now been discontinued. For more information view the journal homepage(opens in new tab/window).

Emma Granqvist, a journal Publisher for Elsevier’s plant sciences, is behind the recent launch of the open access journal New Negatives in Plant Science(opens in new tab/window), a platform for negative, unexpected or controversial results in the field. The journal is viewed as a pilot and may lead to New Negatives in… titles for other research disciplines.

In this article, Granqvist explains why she believes scientists should move away from positive bias to ensure all research results are shared through peer review.

Many experimental results never see the light of publication day. For a large number of these, it comes down to the data being “negative”, i.e. the expected and/or wanted effect was not observed. A straightforward example might be the testing of a soil additive that is believed to help a plant grow. If the experiment outcome shows no difference between the standard soil and the soil with the additive, then the result will end up buried in the laboratory’s archive.

But is this really the best approach to scientific results?

Ignoring the vast information source that is negative results is troublesome in several ways. Firstly, it skews the scientific literature by only including chosen pieces of information. Secondly, it causes a huge waste of time and resources, as other scientists considering the same questions may perform the same experiments.

Furthermore, given that positive results are published, whereas negative data will struggle, it is extremely difficult to correct the scientific record for false positives; controversial studies that conflict with or cannot reproduce previously published studies are seldom given space in peer-reviewed journals.

Sometimes the argument is given that negative data “cannot be trusted”. But as was pointed out in the 2013 article “Trouble at the Lab(opens in new tab/window)” in The Economist, negative data are statistically more trustworthy than positive data.

Given that restrictions in publication space is becoming outdated in today’s world of digital information, it would be more efficient and un-biased if all results were made available to the interested scientific community. For the funding bodies this holds an additional benefit: a grant funding research that resulted in negative data would then still result in publications and shared information.

New Negatives in Plant Science – a pilot journal

To raise this important issue, and put the spotlight on negative and controversial data, the journal New Negatives in Plant Science(opens in new tab/window) was launched in 2014. It is an open access journal that publishes both research articles and commentaries. While there are other journals that welcome negative results, New Negatives in Plant Science aims to encourage and drive scientific debate by giving these studies a place of their own.

The editors, Dr. Thomas W. Okita of Washington State University(opens in new tab/window) and Dr. José A. Olivares of Los Alamos National Laboratory(opens in new tab/window), point out that this information can be valuable to the scientific community in a number of ways, for example, by helping others to avoid repeating the same experiments as well as encouraging new hypothesis building.

New negatives in plant science cover

Currently two Special Issues of the journal are being prepared; one on Controversial issues in Plant Carbohydrate Metabolism(opens in new tab/window) and one on Negative Data on Nutrient Use Efficiency in Plants.

Positive reactions

There have been a great number of positive reactions from the community around the launch of the journal. In a recent quiz on the journal’s homepage, many scientists explained why they thought negative and controversial results should be published for public consumption. A few of their comments are shown below. The winner of the journal’s quiz was awarded a travel grant to the Elsevier Current Opinion conference on Plant Genome Evolution(opens in new tab/window). Thanks to all quiz participants for your contributions!

Be bold, and simply let the world know what you ‘negatively‘ know. Jickerson P. Lado

It will bring openness to the scientific community and stimulate innovation. Leonard Rusinamhodzi

I would prefer to read negative as well as positive results in a very well-balanced way so that I can receive as much information as possible … Saudan Singh

Contributor

Emma Granqvist

EG

Emma Granqvist

Publisher

Elsevier

Read more about Emma Granqvist