More negativity in science is needed

20161020100000, Brenda Lau
Many negative studies are neglected as positive results gain more attention
Many negative studies are neglected as positive results gain more attention
Unlike the news, where negativity sells, scientific findings don't do so well. Positive results have been found to be more appealing to readers and gain more media coverage. But with no negative findings, this means that researchers will not be able to read about studies that might prevent them from pursuing a path with a dead end or might provide them with insights into where to look next.

As such, there is an increasing pressure on scientists to pursue paths of investigation that are not necessarily logical or hypothesis-driven. Many scientists are forced to pursue non-linear lines of investigation to prove significance to have the luxury of tucking away negative findings (the 'file-drawer effect) and instead focus on their positive outcomes, rather than tackling a research question in a systematic manner.

Grants are said to play a factor in this, whereby a high publication output with a high citation rate equals to a higher chance of winning competitive grants to fund their research. Studies have shown that papers are less likely to be published and cited if they report negative results. As such, many scientists choose not to proceed with their non-significant findings which would not generate scientific interest and citations.

'High impact' journals are also guilty of encouraging this practice as their selectiveness implies that negative results are not accepted. Critics of status quo in science have urged journals to publish negative findings - those that fail to support their hypotheses.

Changing scientific thinking, one step at a time

They argue that it does not mean scientists have failed in their research, but rather the opposite. For example, a study that discovers a drug that failed to work against an infection might be important information.

Some journals have started to make changes, such as The American Journal of Gastroenterology, which announced that they will be dedicating an entire supplement in its November 2016 issue to "negative" results.

"There's a lot of great research out there and sometimes the results are negative," said Brian Lacy, co-editor in chief of the journal. "So many of these negative studies are more important than positive results."

The journal has received nearly 100, many of which were "great studies from well-known investigators" that lauded the journal for allowing their papers to be published. Some of the articles "will actually change how people will practice," Lacy said.

Telling all sides of the story


Before grants and awards were introduced, the noblest aspect of science was being able to transparently present all sides of a story. Scientific principles are meant to be always under reconsideration, yet there have been only a few occasions in modern science where this happens and new evidence has indeed refuted old hypotheses, changing ways of scientific thinking.

For example, the case of the MMR vaccine, whereby research doctor Andrew Wakefield, together with 12 co-authors stated that MMR vaccination increases the incidence of autism. It triggered widespread panic, leading to a decade-long decrease in child immunisation.

Since then, 13 studies have published negative results in regards to the same research, leading to the article retraction in 2010. But support for these 13 studies was weak, even though evidence of a rise in morbidity and mortality of easily preventable diseases during this time was seen.

Supporting negative results by going against the status quo

Humans have an inbuilt need to follow the majority and therefore face an innate difficulty in overriding pre-existing beliefs. Studies have shown that our cognitive bias have difficulty in fighting for a paradigm shift, especially when negative results are often associated with a stereotype of flawed or poorly designed studies and therefore reflect badly on the scientist.

Besides AJG, the Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine has also been doing this since 2002. It explains, "publishing well documented failures may reveal fundamental flaws and obstacles in commonly used methods, drugs or reagents such as antibodies or cell lines, ultimately leading to improvements in experimental designs and clinical decisions."

Newer journals have surfaced, such as the Journal of Negative Results, which launched in 2004 and the Journal of Pharmaceutical Negative Results, dating back to only 2010.

The unfortunate reality that is evidence to science's strong positivity bias, is that these important journals are rarely cited. So let's laud the AJG and urge for more prominent journals to publish more negative studies in their journals to balance the positive bias. MIMS

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