The Importance of Negative Results in Science
A young biologist argues that negative results in science are valuable and are worth being published and shared.
Maye (not her real name)
Maye is a biotechnology engineer with a master's degree in biological sciences. She is Colombian, a scientist, and a lover of desserts and ice cream. She loves animals and that is why she enjoys spending time with her dogs.
The importance of negative results in science
In my short experience in biological science, especially in my masters degree, I discovered the fright that comes with publishing the negative results of my investigation. Why do we only aspire to publish when the research was successful? After two years of intense work and long hours in the laboratory and rigorous methodology based on the academic literature, the results obtained did not meet my expectations.
However, my research was very valuable. We wanted to use microorganisms to biodegrade a major waste (oily sludge) from the oil industry that comes from the refining, storage and transportation process. This biotechnological process, known as bioremediation, has been used "successfully" to biodegrade a high content of hydrocarbons present in the oily sludge by different authors. Despite previous successes from other scientific papers, the biodegradation of the contaminant used in my research wasn’t as effective and this was very disappointing to me. This was understandable, I was a young researcher facing the hardest part of science, frustration. Finally, three months ago I got my title and I’m currently trying to publish my investigation results in a scientific journal. My hope is by publishing my negative results it will help change the culture of the scientific community.
Nowadays, I think that scientific journals should make an effort to publish negative results. This would allow us to open a wide and honest debate about what could have happened and thus avoid making the same mistakes as other researchers. Sharing these types of results, the product of serious research, would be an encouraging and sincere message for young people who dream of being researchers. It is time to break the paradigms of "success" that we researchers have rooted in our minds since many advances in science have been the product of experimental failures. Why should I feel bad or quit my job because of negative results? On the contrary, the publication and dissemination of these type of results should be an opportunity for the scientific community to gain knowledge and experience. Should the publication of negative results be underestimated? Is transparency and honesty in what was obtained from the investigation not more important? Do we continue with the idea of selling perfection? I look forward to my work being published and thus contributing a grain of sand to change the world, which one? The world of Science.
After writing this, I realized that I am not the only one who wants to talk about this topic. Devang Mehta, a young PhD, shared his experience in a Career Column of Nature. He discussed the negative results of his research with genetic engineering and, above all, his criticism of the skepticism that exists in the publication of this type of results. I realized that by talking about this topic, we are voicing our beliefs in the hope that things will change. As my tutor says: "negative results are also results" and therefore, they must be shown.
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