The Rise of the Null Hypothesis

Don’t you just hate it when you’ve worked your brain to the limit and your fingers to the bone, only to be rewarded with negative data? Or at least, experimental results that are not noteworthy enough to be rewarded with publication? In the harsh world of ‘publish or perish’, many scientists just file this work away and move on.

But it’s important to share the negatives as well as the positives, to help shape and guide future work. Efficient communication prevents the duplication of past efforts, and could actually speed up positive discoveries.

Just imagine how many research dollars and man-hours are wasted on experiments that have previously been tried, tested, and discarded.

Thankfully, some major journals (such as PLoS ONE) say that they will consider publication of negative data. Within the Nature umbrella we have the journal Scientific Reports, which states that ‘papers describing negative results and scientifically justified replications will also be considered.’ Less well-known journals, such as F1000Research also ‘welcome confirmatory and negative results, as well as null studies’.

However, the proportion of purely negative studies in such journals is quite small. Perhaps because researchers rarely consider a negative study to be worth the effort of fleshing out to the level required for publication. Perhaps it just lacks that tantalising flavour that is so important for future funding and promotions.

To build up the negative-data bookshelf, some specific journals do exist. The Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine (from BMC), the Journal of Pharmaceutical Negative Results, and the Journal of Negative Results – Ecology and Evolutionary Biology were all created for the express purpose of sharing negative stories. Of course some guidelines exist – the presence of a clear hypothesis, and a logical experimental plan, for instance. If we all published our wildest experimental whims, or something where a negative result is obviously expected, we would be crushed under a tsunami of manuscripts.

Nevertheless, let’s remember that publishing is the circulation of findings amongst fellow researchers – perhaps we should do away with the terms ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ once and for all, and simply aim to share knowledge.negative data

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Lauren Wright

Globetrotting Aussie postdoc on the hunt for science, logic, and humanity. I research metabolism, mitochondria, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other weighty stuff.

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