Human discovery, scientific and otherwise, has always been moved forwards in response to the positive and negative outcomes of our experiences. The experimental nature of scientific research, based on the testing of hypotheses, implies a distinct possibility of negative results to our experiments. The very essence of science is based on using both positive and negative results as steps along the continuum.

Medical and scientific theories are developed over time as new research challenges and builds upon received wisdom. For instance, medical research has overturned the assumption that conditions like scurvy and beri-beri are caused by infection, finding that they are actually a symptom of vitamin or hormonal deficiency due to malnutrition.

However, there is a growing feeling in the research community that publishing negative results, despite their scientific value, can be damaging, and many are choosing not to submit such findings to journals.

Publishing negative results

Much research does result in negative findings, and these are rarely published. However, prior knowledge that a particular hypothesis or experiment leads to a negative result could help other researchers modify their experiments or save time in reproducing this event. In an article in Nature, Jonathan Knight has asked whether scientific progress is being hampered in some areas by this practice (1).

William F. Balistreri, MD, Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Pediatrics, says: “We agree with the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). They have made a clear statement regarding the obligation to publish negative studies: ‘Editors should consider seriously for publication any carefully done study of an important question, relevant to their readers, whether the results for the primary or any additional outcome are statistically significant. Failure to submit or publish findings because of lack of statistical significance is an important cause of publication bias.’

The Journal of Pediatrics serves as a practical guide for the continuing education of physicians who diagnose and treat disorders in infants, children and adolescents. We seek original work, which undergoes peer-reviewed scrutiny overseen by the Editorial Board, and have accepted articles that clearly documented a lack of efficacy of therapeutic agents or procedures. We believe that evidence-based medicine must be based on the best evidence.”

In an attempt to encourage researchers to publish negative results, BMC launched the Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine in 2002. This journal publishes research that covers: “aspects of unexpected, controversial, provocative and/or negative results/conclusions in the context of current tenets, providing scientists and physicians with responsible and balanced information to support informed experimental and clinical decisions.”

Spectacular blunder
Polywater was initially described in 1962 as a new form of water generated from regular water inside glass capillaries. Polywater was believed to have different properties to normal water, including a significantly higher boiling point (three times that of water) and a higher level of viscosity. This led to considerable research for several years until it was eventually confirmed that Polywater was actually normal water containing impurities that were so concentrated that they significantly affected the properties of their solvent – i.e. water. Polywater is rather a large negative result and World Records in Chemistry has described it as a “spectacular blunder” (5).

The polywater effect

The effects of negative results and wide-scale research failures have also caught the attention of the scientometric community. The polywater (see box) research front has been analyzed both bibliometrically and econometrically to assess its impacts on citation activity and economics.

In two papers published in Scientometrics, Eric Ackermann followed the progression of polywater research, demonstrating that seminal papers published in 1962 led to an “information epidemic” that proliferated through the literature and peaked in 1970 with over 100 articles (2, 3). Ackermann found 445 papers on polywater between 1962 and 1974. The research penetrated numerous disciplines, with 85% of papers appearing in five subject fields: nuclear science and technology, physics, multidisciplinary science, electro-chemistry and analytical chemistry.

Ackerman’s findings show how rapidly a new research front can spread and how readily researchers alter their own direction in the light of seminal papers, regardless of whether the research carried out turns out to be true or not.

References:
(1) Knight, J. (2003) ‘Null and Void’, Nature, 422 (6932), pp. 554–555
(2) Ackermann, E. (2005) ‘Bibliometrics of a controversial scientific literature: Polywater research, 1962–1974’, Scientometrics, 63 (2) pp. 189–208
(3) Ackermann, E. (2006) ‘Indicators of failed information epidemics in the scientific journal literature: A publication analysis of Polywater and Cold Nuclear Fusion’, Scientometrics, 66 (3), pp. 451–466
(4) Diamond, A.M. (2009) ‘The career consequences of a mistaken research project – the case of polywater’, American Journal of Economics & Sociology, 68 (2), pp. 387–411
(5) Quadbeck-Seeger, H-J. (Ed.); Faust, R.; Knaus, G.; Siemeling, U. (1999) World Records in Chemistry. New York: Wiley-VCH

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