It's Time For The Academic World To See The Positive Side Of Negative Results

Techdirt has written many times about the need to move from traditional academic publishing to open access. There are many benefits, including increasing the reach and impact of research, and allowing members of the public to read work that they have often funded, without needing to pay again. But open access is not a panacea; it does not solve all the problems of today’s approach to spreading knowledge. In particular, it suffers from the same serious flaw that afflicts traditional titles: a tendency to focus on success, and to draw a veil of silence over failure. As a new column in Nature puts it:

Scientists have become so accustomed to celebrating only success that we’ve forgotten that most technological advances stem from failure. We all want to see our work saving lives or solving world hunger, and I think the collective bias towards finding positive results in the face of failure is a dangerous motivation.

That’s true, though hardly a new insight. People have been pointing it out for years. But the fact that it still needs to be said shows how little progress has been made in this regard. For example, back in 2015, Stephen Curry, a professor of structural biology at London’s Imperial College, wrote a column in the Guardian entitled “On the importance of being negative”, which explains why negative results matter:

Their value lies in mapping out blind alleys, warning other investigators not to waste their time or at least to tread carefully. The only trouble is, it can be hard to get them published.

Curry noted that Elsevier was aiming to address that problem with the launch of the catchily-named journal “New Negatives in Plant Science”, which was “a platform for negative, unexpected or controversial results”. Unfortunately, looking at the journal’s Web page today, we read: “The Publisher has decided to discontinue the journal New Negatives in Plant Science.” Maybe papers about negative results were simply a bit, well, negative for many people. Undaunted, Cambridge University Press (CUP) is launching its own title in this space:

Experimental Results will offer a place where researchers can publish standalone experimental results “regardless of whether those results are novel, inconclusive, negative or supplementary to other published work.” The journal will also publish the outcome of attempts to reproduce previously published experiments, including those that dispute past findings.

Some journals publish full-paper negative or inconclusive results, but published stand-alone results are a rarity, said CUP.

That’s a welcome move, because the academic world effectively discards huge quantities of knowledge, often hard-won, about things that don’t work, don’t reproduce the results of others, or are simply unclear. Those may be messy and less glamorous than the big successes that hit the headlines and win prizes, but they are valuable nonetheless.

It’s instructive to compare the world of academic publishing with what happens in Silicon Valley. There, failure is celebrated as proof that entrepreneurs have been willing to try new things, and acknowledged as a valuable learning experience. It’s added to CVs with pride, not glossed over like some shameful secret. It’s time to bring some of that enthusiastic willingness to take risks to the rigorous but rather timid world of academia. — and to reward it accordingly.

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