When a Negative Becomes a Positive

Once upon a time there were ten research studies with very similar hypotheses and methodologies. In nine of them, the results came out “negative” so the researchers never submitted their studies for publication. The researcher who reported “positive” results did publish the results.

What happens to the lessons learned from the “negative” studies? The results include information that can contribute to the knowledge base of that discipline. Unfortunately, it will not be shared because there is a perception that negative results are not publishable. As a result, time and money will be spent by other research teams repeating previous work. What about the study participants who have given their time and effort to contribute to the knowledge base? When results are not published their endeavors are wasted. Is this ethical?

Even when negative results are published, more years have passed between the study’s completion and publication than when results are considered positive. During this time lapse the articles cannot be cited or used in review articles and the void of knowledge gets larger and larger. Clinicians are making treatment decisions using articles that do not have all the information that has been gained in research. Simply because the studies with negative results have not been published.

Turn that “negative” into a “positive” by publishing the results so others can use what you’ve learned. Researchers can then use this information to design studies that are not duplicating work. As a result, dwindling resources such as funding, time, and study participants are used in the best way possible. And clinicians will be making better decisions because those decisions will be based on all of the information.

Realizing the importance of this information, there are several journals dedicated to publishing negative results. They include the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine, Journal of Negative Results–Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and the Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis. PLoS One also publishes negative results. Many of these journals are open-access, peer-reviewed, and indexed in MEDLINE and other major databases.

To further explore this topic, register for the upcoming “Turning Lemons into Lemonade: Making Negative Research Results Useful” FlashClass to be held on Wednesday, September 10, from 10–11 a.m. in Falk Library. You can sign up to receive all FlashClass Offers via e-mail, or view current FlashClass Offers.

~Linda Hartman