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Why are negative results rarely published?

Dear Dr. Eddy,
After spending a lot of time on a research project, I found out that my hypothesis was wrong. However, I thought this was an important learning that would be useful for other researchers in my field. I want to publish the results, but my manuscript has been rejected by two journals. Why are negative results not published as freely as positive results?

It’s sad that journals are not readily accepting your paper for publication. As is well known, publication and reporting bias has been a persistent problem in science publication. Often, only the very eye-opening negative results—ones that strongly challenge existing beliefs—are published, while the rest are brushed aside. This trend can be seen across disciplines, and there are several reasons behind this.

Unlike you, many researchers are not enthusiastic about publishing negative findings because they think such results may reflect poorly on their skill, which in turn would affect their career and the reduce their chances of receiving grants. So they may publish negative results along with some positive results rather than publishing the negative ones exclusively. Moreover, most researchers may prefer to pursue another way of proving their hypothesis right rather than spend time in developing a manuscript that explains why their original hypothesis turned out to be incorrect.

Another factor influencing this, as you have realized, is that journals are not as open to publishing negative results. This stems from the inclination to publish results that make headway rather than those that explain how and why something doesn’t work. Journals may also reject such papers because they are not likely to attract the number of citations required to maintain or increase the journals’ impact factor. Journals may not be sure that their readers would be interested in reading about negative findings. Understandably, editors would also have to spend considerable time and resources to be absolutely sure that the negative findings attained are in fact because of a flawed hypothesis, rather than a simple experimental flaw.

The downside of not publishing non-confirmatory findings is that the scientific community may remain in the dark. Negative findings, after all, can provide meaningful insights. Hence, they should be published for the following reasons:

  • If negative results are published, unnecessary replication of work can be avoided. Researchers would know what doesn’t work and would not spend time, effort, and resources on a hypothesis that someone has already worked on and found to be incorrect.
  • Negative results can make way for positive results. Based on the negative findings, researchers can make informed decisions and try out other methods that might yield confirmatory results. One significant example is that of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. His theory spawned from the negative results Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, the 19th century physicists, got from a series of experiments they conducted to detect the relative motion of matter through the stationary “luminiferous aether” or “aether wind” that challenged the then-accepted aether theory.

In the current publication scenario, there’s a great deal of competition among both researchers and journals to publish high-impact papers with breakthrough achievements. As a result, papers with confirmatory data get more attention than those with non-confirmatory data. A change needs to be brought in the scientific community’s perception of negative results. It would help if universities, funding committees, and companies could support the publication of important negative findings. This would encourage researchers to share their negative findings and help the advancement of science.

On a positive note, like you, some in the scientific community do understand that behind every successful hypothesis there are likely to be some significant yet unsuccessful experiments and hypotheses. To make these failed experiments known to the scientific community, journals such as Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine, PLOS ONE, and The All Results Journals encourage researchers to publish negative results. You could consider submitting your paper to one of these journals.  

You might also be interested in reading Why are replication studies so rarely published?

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