On the importance of negative results

This blog has included a fair amount of posts about research studies, as well as about tools, procedures and tips. With all this content, we intend to give you all the ingredients to enter the fascinating world of research and applications of applied neuroscience.

Let’s say you get inspired reading the blog and want to try your own ideas for an experiment. It might be a new idea of your own. In this case, you may want to consult what has already been published to see if someone else already had that idea and published his/her results. Or it could also be that you liked one of the published experiments you read and wish to replicate the results. In this other case, you may also want to consult digital databases to read about similar published work.

But what you will most likely only find in the published work are the successes. That is, most of the contents you will find will be positive results: works in which the initially stated hypothesis was supported by the results. Does that mean that everyone that tried that idea obtained good results? Probably not. Or, in case no previous work can be found in that particular field, does that mean that you are actually the first one to run that experiment? Again, probably not.

Photo Credits: Wikipedia

So this brings up the following issue: for some reason usually (or, at least, until recently) only good the results of a scientific work are published. And that causes two major problems:

  • Sometimes results are ‘stretched’ (or, plainly, cooked) in order to be publishable. After putting a lot of time and effort into working on an elaborate experiment, you may need to get a publication out of this effort.
  • All the valuable knowledge acquired during the development of the work gets lost in terms of contribution to the community. Valuable lessons can be learnt and important conclusions can be reached even (or especially) from bad results.

Fortunately, in recent times the scientific community has not only noticed the problem (and herehere), but also actively tried to solve it. Journals (and herehere ) and forums in negative results have appeared on different knowledge areas, and some of the new scientific publication platforms even already encourage the publication of negative results. Publications with negative results are becoming more and more common, even in the areas covered in this blog.

Therefore, if you plan to start a new experiment, either from scratch with a new idea or a replicative one, we highly suggest you to search not only for published works, but also, and maybe more importantly, for already published negative and positive results. From the negative publications you may learn what mistakes you are likely to commit, what are the unexpected difficulties you will find, and avoid falling again in those negative results. It’s like taking a maze: if you previously know which are the paths that will be closed at each turn, you will find the way out sooner.

Or, maybe there won’t actually be a way out. But at least someone will have told you in advance.

Photo Credits: Wikipedia

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