During an interview with Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine (JNRBM), Dr Haiko Sprott (below) provides some interesting and thought-provoking views on why the publication of negative results is valuable to the scientific community. Dr Sprott is Head of the Pain Clinic Basel, Switzerland, and carries out research into chronic pain, pain genes and multimodal pain therapy. He is also an Editorial Board member for JNRBM.
Why is the publication of negative results so important?
In general, the researcher is following a hypothesis which he or she suspects has a probability of occurring. Based on my own experience, in some cases this is not necessarily what will happen at the end of the study, and this is more or less an unexpected surprise for the researcher themselves as well as for the whole research group. A certain proportion of these unexpected results are negative results, which means a scientist is not able to show the phenomenon that they would like to demonstrate in respect to a positive effect of the experiment. Also, the interpretation of these negative data might be difficult. Doubts about the setting, the methods, and the expected outcome arise. In my opinion, if negative results are really confirmed, it is more important to present these data to the scientific community so that we can learn for future research in medical treatment.
How does the publication of negative results benefit the scientific community?
As an example, let’s talk about orphan diseases: These are very rare, which means that clinically randomized controlled studies will not be realistic to perform. If we only consider positive results, it will result in a biased impression of the effectiveness of a specific treatment. Therefore because these negative data haven’t been published, nobody knows that this specific treatment failed in many more cases. So the patient will be given the wrong treatment, which may not help or even cause serious problems. This is just one example from a therapeutic point of view, but of course this is true for the whole of biology and medicine.
What do you think prevents scientists being more willing to publish their negative results?
There might be several reasons: First of all, the researcher themselves might feel that their own results are not worthy to be published. Secondly, trying to publish negative results is a really hard undertaking. The reason therefore could be that academic journals themselves are not even considering these negative results because the editorial board don’t think it is important for readers; or reviewers reject these findings because of the lack of positive results. Last but not least, special journals like Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine (JNRBM) are not well-known enough and the scientists are approaching the “wrong” journal for their data. There needs to be more awareness for special journals like JNRBM.
How do you think we can increase willingness to publish negative results, for example in Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine?
This very much depends on the prominence of the journal within the scientific community. Many of my colleagues are very surprised to hear about the existence of such a journal, as most of them have also produced negative results and did not publish them. Therefore, in my opinion, the willingness is there but there is also frustration. Other peer-reviewed scientific journals should also be open to considering negative results.
Is there a way that we can overcome the tendency for negative results to be viewed as being less useful than positive results?
This might be a problem to do with a journal’s editorial board or with the reviewers. The submitted data have to be very concise and well-confirmed to convince a reviewer that they are judging a scientifically valuable manuscript. In some unusual cases it may be that negative results could even change a paradigm; it is even harder to get these data published. I have heard that in the past even some future Nobel Prize winners didn’t get controversial data published in their earlier careers. From my point of view I would prefer to read negative as well as positive results in a very well-balanced way so that I can receive as much information as possible and thus be able to draw the right conclusions from such unusual cases.
How do you think we can increase transparency in research?
This question is really difficult to answer. Perhaps reviewers could be more or less “trained” to review manuscripts simply for their “scientific soundness” rather than just for their findings. This might prevent the imbalance between positive and negative results. “Transparency in research” is of course a much wider issue than just the publishing of valuable data with respect to the aforementioned (im-)balance. I myself wish my research to be judged by a very open-minded Editorial Board in order to avoid any discrimination caused simply because the results are negative, unexpected or even controversial.
Prof. Dr. Haiko Sprott, MD
Pain Clinic Basel, Switzerland
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Do you mean ‘null results’ rather than ‘negative results’? These terms are not interchangeable.