Bad News is No News

Yesterday's post was about countries that only report positive results: The New Intervention That Works Better, the New Drug with Fewer Side Effects, etc.

One might speculate why it might be that China and Russia don't report bad news. Is it because they pick projects likelier to succeed? Or is there intense government pressure to fudge the data?

Maybe it's because they didn't know about JNR -- the Journal of Negative Results.

From The Power of Negative Thinking in Harvard Magazine:

Although ball players can't win with bad batting averages, scientists often learn from a good whiff, says Hersey professor of cell biology Bjorn R. Olsen. Many experiments fail, or produce controversial, ambiguous, or unexpected results. For those who bravely—or accidentally—go where few have gone before, Olsen and Christian Pfeffer, a visiting research fellow in pediatrics at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, have created the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine to push such outcomes into the mainstream.

There was a guy in my lab, we'll call him JP, who actually proposed this idea a few years back. I don't think he planned this so much as a peer-reviewed journal but as a repository for bad data. Each month, I envisioned sections like "Results People Couldn't Achieve" and "Overstated Conclusions That Are Actually Meaningless". JP dreamed of sending invitations to selected labs: "Based on your recent works, we encourage you to submit to JNR." Ah, the kiss of death.

You'd think business at a journal like JNR would be booming. Our lab alone could have filled a double-sized issue. Yet, their top ten articles list only goes to 6 -- because they've only published six articles in two years.

Investigators may be worried about the stigma of publishing "negative." Or, more likely, they hide their negative results from competitors and use them as a springboard for experiments that will work.

Maybe JNR should retool, and focus on dead-end projects that will never, ever see the light of day: Summer research rotations for college and med students. The kids win, because they get their name in print. The labs win, because all the time and money spent on training and supplies results in a tangible publication. And JNR wins, because their summer issue would be huge. I wish this had been around in my day.