Both positive and negative results are fundamental to overall understanding and scientific advancement. Yet despite their vital role, negative or unexpected results may be overlooked, resulting in the so-called publication bias for positive data.
The limited availability of negative results has helped to fuel the ‘reproducibility crisis’, with damaging practical and economic consequences, as explained by Simon Nimpf and Dr David Keays in a recent article in EMBO Reports. The authors state that up to 89% of published studies cannot be replicated and highlight the difficulty in getting a refutation accepted. However, while researchers and publishers may be reluctant to publish negative findings, it is their responsibility to recognise the significance of such data and to make them available.
While researchers and publishers may be reluctant to publish negative findings, it is their responsibility to recognise the significance of such data and to make them available.
Nimpf and Keays offer advice on how to navigate the publication of negative results, suggesting approaching the journal that published the original findings as a first step for refutations. While the authors note that some journals dedicated to negative results have had limited uptake by researchers, Cambridge University Press launched the open access journal Experimental Results in 2019. The journal aims to publish articles describing the validation and reproducibility of existing findings, null results, supplementary findings, and improvements or amendments to published results: such approaches may help to redress the balance in the publication of negative and positive data.
We must recognise the significant impact that publication bias can have on patients. This was highlighted recently when The European Association for Cardio-thoracic Surgery (EACTS) questioned the safety of certain European clinical guidelines for coronary artery disease. Unpublished data from one of the underlying studies suggested that the original conclusions may have been misleading, prompting EACTS to encourage its members to ignore the recommendations, at least for now.
Ultimately, Nimpf and Keays urge the scientific community as a whole to recognise the vital role of negative data: we must honour our responsibility to make these findings public.