“Refutations have often been regarded as establishing the failure of a scientist, or at least of his theory. It should be stressed that this is an inductivist error. Every refutation should be regarded as a great success. … Even if a new theory … should meet an early death, it should not be forgotten; rather its beauty should be remembered, and history should record our gratitude to it.” - Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1963)
In Why it's time to publish research “failures”, Lucy Goodchild van Hilten writes about the movement to counter publishing bias that favors positive results, which leads to under-reporting of negative findings. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) is now calling on all results – including null results – to be published within 12 months of study completion. Journals dedicated to negative findings are springing up and there are serious campaigns within the scientific community to get researchers to report negative results.
Of course there’s push-back. And for good reason: scientists are super-busy individuals. Many work 60 or more hours a week. It takes a lot of time, energy and focus to do research and write publishable papers. Given that null results are much more common than positive findings, is it really reasonable to ask scientists to more than double their workload, risking health, career and relationships, for a cause that serves the Greater Good but accrues little personal benefit to themselves? As one researcher put it: “If I chronicled all my negative results during my studies, the thesis would have been 20,000 pages instead of 200.”
To tackle the time requirements, reporting of negative findings needs to be streamlined. Unless otherwise inclined, researchers shouldn’t be expected to engage in lengthy background discussions or analysis when reporting null results. Keep it simple and short when possible. Ideally, publications will develop clear guidelines with fairly low word-limits to encourage submissions. Ideally, funding sources will work closely with researchers to facilitate the collection and reporting of all findings. For instance, some funders require quarterly reports – these reports should also include sections for null results. When researchers have to organize, analyze, and report all findings on an ongoing basis as a condition of continued funding, subsequent publishing of the same findings will involve much less time and effort.