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Negative results in science are common. So why aren’t they reported?

Big breakthroughs in cancer research are wonderful, the holy grail of every cancer scientist. But success is not the whole story. Like an iceberg, every real breakthrough is supported by a hidden mass of unseen, uncelebrated negative results. They are a frustrating, but necessary part of the process. So why do we rarely get to hear about those wrong answers? Where are all those negative results?

To help me talk about why negative results in early-stage research often go unseen, I’ve asked some of our veteran Scientific Committee members - Dr Angeliki Malliri, Professor Andrew Fry and Professor Paul Coffer about their own experiences with negative data.

When is wrong really wrong?

Firstly, all agree that in biomedicine, it’s actually harder than you might think to confirm a negative result. Biology is messy, and negative data is often not that clear-cut. Sure, a negative answer to your experiment might mean that your idea is wrong, but it also could mean that that your idea is only wrong sometimes, or that your experimental conditions are skewing things, or maybe something entirely different is happening that you don’t even know about.

“The problem with negative data is that many times you are not sure that they are really negative, or maybe you just haven't got the conditions of your experiments right, for example,” says Angeliki Malliri. “So I feel you often have to treat them with caution.”

Andrew Fry agrees: “As a scientist it is hard to be sure about a 'negative' result. If it doesn't work, is it just that the experiment hasn't been done properly, under the right conditions, or with optimal reagents?”

Why do you never hear about a negative result?

This begins to explain why even though we know negative results exist in biomedicine, we don’t see many papers shouting about them. Scientists like to be sure of what they say, and it takes a lot of hard work to make a scientist sure about a negative answer.

But what about all those dead ends? All the wrong turnings? If all negative findings were published, wouldn’t it help research move quicker, wouldn’t it stop needless repetition of redundant work?

Yes and no. For researchers working in the same area, it can be extremely valuable to know what hasn't worked for others. And scientists do find crafty ways of getting negative data out there for others to use- more about this later.

But dead ends are par for the course in early-stage research, making up “about 80 per cent of lab results,” says Paul Coffer. That’s an awful lot of negative data to spend valuable time and resources following-up.

And maybe it’s simply human nature to want to shout (and hear) about discoveries not disappointments, but there’s certainly a perception that high-profile journals and funders are most interested in the exciting ‘positive’ findings- providing even less incentive for scientists to focus on negative results.

When a wrong makes it right

So when the truly definitive, ‘this idea is WRONG!’ reverse-eureka moment really does happen, it can take a lot of work to get the idea out there. “Where I have seen negative results published [in their own right], it is almost always to refute a theory with an alternative positive finding,” says Andrew Fry.

These kinds of ‘high-impact’ negative findings are perhaps more worth pinning down, and are certainly essential in helping the scientific record to ‘self-correct’. A perfect example of some very active self-correction currently ongoing in the cancer research field is the ‘bad luck’ vs ‘lifestyle’ debate, which was kicked-off by some quite controversial research published last year. After swinging around wildly, newly published research is now helping to ‘recentre’ the argument.

You can find them if you look

Although negative findings may not always receive the public attention they deserve, that’s not to say they are immediately consigned to the lab waste bin. “It’s extremely important to document these [negative data] carefully.” says Paul Coffer. Initially just to ensure that within the lab the next PhD student doesn’t end up repeating the unsuccessful experimental approach of their predecessor.”

And many negative findings actually ARE published for other scientists to see. They may not be the headline, but hidden away in the depths of the published paper, scientists often include negative findings as part of their ‘story’ of reaching a positive result.

“I have an example of this at the moment,” says Paul, “where we show that protein X doesn’t bind to protein Y, but protein Z does.”

This type of approach helps demonstrate the integrity and thoroughness of the work, and also gives other scientists working in the field a more complete story they can use. “This is useful, mechanistic negative data,” he explains, “which might save some poor researcher from spending time looking to see if protein X and protein Y interact.”

So it seems you can find all those negative findings if you look hard enough- bobbing along just under the waterline. Maybe it's just that as humans we prefer to focus on the positive results. After all, everybody likes a happy ending.

Further information

Dr Helen Rippon is the Chief Executive of Worldwide Cancer Research.

Helen regularly writes about science and cancer research on her Huffington Post Blog here.

Read Helen's recent Huffington Post blog article about negative results in clinical research here.


Chief Executive at Worldwide Cancer Research

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