Publication bias against negative results leads to author's distress: A case study

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Publication bias against negative results leads to author's distress: A case study

Case: Midway through his manuscript, an author realized that the results he had got were leading him away from the original hypothesis. The conclusions that he had arrived on based on the results were different from what he had envisioned. He approached a manuscript writing services provider requesting if the paper could be rewritten in such a way that the hypothesis matches the analysis of the results. However, the company did not take up the offer saying this was unethical. The author then approached Editage Insights for advice. He said that he did not want to tweak the data as he knew this was unethical. However, he asked us whether he should work backwards to change the hypothesis based on the results. It would definitely mean a lot of rework, reworking the entire introduction and literature review perhaps, but at least he could be hopeful of publication. The author was extremely depressed as he felt that if the research results were reported correctly, his paper would not be published and all his efforts would go waste.

Action: We told the author that if the results did not match the expected outcome suggested in the hypothesis, it clearly indicated that the results were negative. We explained that although the author might not be caught if he changed the hypothesis to match with the research results, this would however, mean misreporting science, and was not a good practice. Research should be reported exactly as it was conducted, even if the results were negative.  We explained that negative results were also beneficial to other researchers and would help further the cause of science. We also explained that while it is true that publication bias does exist in favor of positive results, there are also some journals that exclusively publish negative results.

We explained that rather than changing the hypothesis, the author should focus on writing an excellent discussion section for the paper and a cover letter that would show why it was important for the negative results to reach other scientists. The cover letter should describe the problem that the study results would help address and specify the outcome or views that the study would potentially change.

We also recommended a few journals that exclusively publish negative results and encouraged the author to send out pre-submission inquiries to these journals. One of the journals expressed interest in the paper, and the author finally submitted the paper to this journal.  

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Summary:  Most journals are biased against negative results and prefer publishing only positive results. However, research outcomes can often be negative.  Not publishing negative results would mean a waste of effort, funds, and time. Moreover, negative results are important, as they often give other researchers the opportunity to build upon the data and make other significant discoveries. Recently, there has been increasing awareness amongst the scientific community of the need to publish negative results. There are some journals that are exclusively dedicated to the publication of negative results. Therefore, authors should not be deterred from publishing negative results. What is even more important is that they should not resort to distorting evidence or facts to avoid negative results. Misreporting science can have far reaching negative impacts and can make the people lose faith in science.

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Published on: Dec 22, 2015

Senior Editor, Editage Insights. Researcher coach since 2015
See more from Kakoli Majumder


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