Negative results in complementary and alternative medicine research

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BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine encourages submissions of negative findings in an effort to boost transparency in the scientific record.

A recent opinion piece published in The Scientist highlighted the importance of negative results in scientific research, and how a predilection for publishing only positive findings can result in a large amount of valid and useful science not being reported. This may be due to the widespread belief that there is less value in negative results than positive ones, or that journals are simply not interested in reports of negative findings.

However, there is an argument that negative results are even more important for the field of complementary and alternative medicine research than any other, and it is for this reason that we absolutely welcome reports of negative findings in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine.Analysis, iStock

Complementary and alternative medicine is a somewhat unusual field in terms of medical research in that, rather than searching for new treatments, they are often already available and presented to us, and it is our job to determine which ones work and which do not. As a result, it can sometimes feel like we are undertaking an extended validation of the treatments and therapies offered. When considered in these terms, the utility of negative results becomes clear. As noted in the piece in The Scientist, the non-reporting of negative findings can lead to redundant research, which will inevitably slow down the ‘validation’ process. More problematic though, it can lead to a skew of reports for an already-available treatment towards the positive, sending a message to the public that it is effective and useful, whereas there may in fact be a stack of unpublished work detailing the exact opposite.

In addition, there is the potential problem of researcher bias to consider. Practitioners of a therapy may be disinclined to publish any results which call into question the treatment that they offer. At worst, this can lead to the massaging of results and study designs to favour positive findings. This is obviously an entirely different problem, and one which falls into the remit of publication ethics. However, less ethically dubious but still problematic, it can lead to the ‘hiding’ of negative results, which then accentuates the positive skew in the literature record. Thus it becomes even more important that negative results have a home, and that researchers understand that there is a place where they can submit them.

In the field of complementary and alternative medicine, more than any other, it is important that we push for balance, moderation and openness in the reporting of research. The way to achieve this is through the publication of both positive and negative findings. Only in this way can the field be seen to be honest, self-regulating, and to be striving to identify the treatments and therapies that are truly effective. Similarly, only in this way is the field going to gain acceptance from the scientific community and from the general public as a valid area of scientific research.

By encouraging the submission and publication of both positive and negative results, BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine is looking to play our part in bringing about this balance.