steer the future

Steer the future of science: publish your negative results

Publication bias and reproducibility are two of the key challenges facing the future of science. While certain initiatives have been implemented—for example, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) requires clinical trials to be pre-registered in a public registry database from the start—we shouldn’t rely on such incentives to drive change. It is only through the thoughtful actions of each member of the scientific community that real change will come about.

One way you can help is to submit any negative, conflicting or inconclusive results you have for publication; needless to say, data must be from well-executed studies with clear hypotheses. A concerted effort by the entire scientific community to reduce publication bias (i.e., the publication of all results, not just positive or novel results) will have a number of benefits:

  1. More publications!
  2. Publishing “failures” will prevent other researchers from making the same mistakes, saving time and money.
  3. Publishing all results will allow a deeper understanding of the whole of the situation.
  4. It will make it easier to identify false-positives. Anomalies can occur; publishing results that contradict other studies’ findings will help identify them.
  5. It will reduce the pressure on scientists to publish. If all results (irrespective of the novelty) are published, scientists can focus on conducting well-executed studies.
  6. Valuing “failures” could encourage researchers to pursue riskier research ventures.
  7. Open, transparent, complete reporting will promote public trust

Where can you publish?

Technically, you can submit your work to any journal; and while, in the past, negative results were less likely to be accepted for publication in “high-impact” journals, your chances are higher today, as editors grow evermore aware of the benefits of balanced reporting. By even attempting to get negative results published, you are making it known to journal editors that you think articles should be evaluated on their scientific and methodological soundness, not on their “novelty”. Perhaps, you could go one step further, and explicitly say this in the cover letter.

There are a number of broad-scope journals that will consider negative results, including PLoS ONEScientific ReportsBMC PsychologyDisease Models & Mechanisms, and the Journal of Insect Science.

There are also journals dedicated solely to the publication of negative results, including:

F1000Research: Articles (life sciences) are published first and peer-reviewed after by invited referees; and reviewers’ comments and author responses are published alongside each article.

PeerJ: Publishes articles in the life sciences. Authors pay a one-time membership fee instead of a publishing fee. Members are then requested to provide a review, comment or question for at least one PeerJ article per year.

PLoS ONE has released two dedicated journals: Positively Negative and The Missing Pieces: A Collection of Negative; Null and Inconclusive Results.

All Results and ACS Omega both publish negative findings in the field of chemistry.

Other journals include Journal of Negative Results in BiomedicineJournal of Negative Results — Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyJournal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis (Psychology); and Journal of Pharmaceutical Negative Results.

If you have negative results that will benefit other scholars but are unsuitable for publication, you could also consider uploading your data to a database. For example, figshare is a free database in which each object has a unique Digital Object Identifier (DOI), allowing indexing and data sharing.

Many suggestions for tackling publication bias have been made, including compulsory set quotas of negative and positive results for journals, or an open-access repository, whereby scientists register their hypotheses and methodologies before an experiment, and upload their results after, regardless of the outcome. As scientists, we are in many ways conditioned to gauge the importance of research based on the novelty of the outcome. This will, and should, change. Therefore, as new incentives and rules develop, be one step ahead, armed with some of your “failures” already published.