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Transparency: How can research progress if half the research never gets published?

Contributors France (Yifeng) Song & Dorsa Mavedatnia

Courtesy of emaze

Collective scientific research drives advances in knowledge. Over the past century, groundbreaking discoveries in biological processes, disease interactions and human physiology have substantially increased human life expectancy and quality. However, behind the glorious discoveries, many scientists, whether experts or those relatively new to their field, do not publish the results of their research projects. They spend years trying to determine significant differences between two manipulated variables and often obtain only statistically insignificant results. Scientists are torn between the ethical action of publishing the negative results and the non-ethical action of abstaining to prevent damaging their reputations.

It is believed by the scientific community that publishing negative results is a “waste of resources” and can ruin careers, but how can research progress if we are missing over half of the information?

Scientists are more likely to publish positive results and hide negative data, a phenomenon known as the positive-results bias. Not only does this skew scientific reality, it creates difficulty for other scientists to reproduce the same results — a result known as the reproducibility bias.

Maybe this issue of transparency extends beyond the individual scientist. Institutions may provide some discouragement when it comes to publishing negative results. For example, scientists are discouraged from publishing negative results, because those results are mostly  published in low impact journals — those that do not rank highly in the scientific community and are of less importance because their published articles are not cited often. Being published in low impact journals may result in less future funding — potentially tarnishing a researcher’s reputation and future ambitions.

As well, researchers often believe that failing to produce results can also make one appear incompetent. Perhaps they’ll be seen as individuals who are unable to perform simple lab experiments incorrectly, a perception that they believe could influence future employment opportunities.

In the grand scheme of things, however, publishing negative results is actually incredibly important. Doing so plays a key role in advancing scientific knowledge.

The greatest benefit of negative results is to other scientists researching similar topics. Statistically insignificant findings may expose flawed or nonproductive concepts and allow for the scientific community to divert its focus and funding to other endeavors. Not only do negative results help other scientists improve their research plans, they also help them reconsider and reinterpret other positive results to address gaps in research. Otherwise, millions of taxpayer dollars, donations from the general public and research grants would be spent reperforming the exact same experiment that would fail to produce results every time.

To address this problem, we must first address the stigma and the detrimental career effects of releasing negative data. One way to discreetly release negative data is to do so through the implementation of public depositories where scientists can discreetly submit their negative results to open access anonymous databases, which can reduce career damage that may otherwise occur from formal publication. This may encourage scientists to publish their results because their name would no longer associated with work that could harm their career.

In clinical studies, it may be beneficial to require registration of all studies in a publically accessible and followable database before the studies are allowed to begin. This means requiring public reporting at specific intervals regardless of study completion status. Though this may increase the already laden administrative load of scientific research, it would facilitate transparency in the release of results and counter conflicts of interest. For example, pharmaceutical companies may hinder the progression of research that may harm their financial interests. Mandatory registration and public attention may prevent controversial studies from getting buried. Finally, regulations can be implemented by agencies that fund research projects like CIHR or NSERC, supporting and enabling scientists on the condition that they release all of their research results.

With increasing awareness and support, it is possible to increase research transparency, and increase the efficiency of scientific progression by normalizing the publication of statistically insignificant results.