The Courage to Fail – Why It’s Important to Embrace Negative Results

July 30, 2019 Susanne Gaertner

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” 
― Thomas A. Edison

Not everyone has the same positive attitude toward failure as Thomas Edison. Failing to obtain a positive result is one thing, but publishing one or even more negative results is another. We live in a performance-oriented society where we’re measured by success, so it’s only human to focus on the positive and downplay the negative. Nevertheless, initially inconclusive or uninteresting findings sometimes lead to major breakthroughs. So, it’s time to give negative research findings a better stage.

But Why Are Negative Results Still Being Neglected?

As soon as a clinical trial does not achieve reasonable results or a development does not work, researchers lose interest. One of the reasons is that it is simpler to build on positive results, which in turn makes it easier to secure research funding for further studies. It’s just natural that funding institutes and industry prefer to invest in promising projects. But on the flip side, how much research funding, time and resources could be saved if researchers all over the world did not undertake studies and experiments that have already been proven to fail?

And if, in the end, all failed attempts lead to new insights and positive findings, then only these will be published, and the rest will be swept under the rug. One of the contributing factors is the fact that articles will be published more frequently if they contain positive results and build on existing and accepted hypotheses, hopefully generating citations. The Impact Factor and CiteScore are the most important indicators for the success of a journal, and the number of citations that articles collect in a given period is fundamental in calculating them. Papers reporting negative results just don’t get as many citations as those with positive ones. Publication bias also has the knock-on effect that the analyses and reviews that are only based on published findings are themselves biased resulting in a major impact on future research.

Embracing Negative Results Will Increase Transparency

Transparency is espoused as one of the highest values of science, and important steps have been taken to increase it. Already in 2015, the WHO released a public statement on the disclosure of the results of clinical trials, regardless of the result.

“Our intention is to promote the sharing of scientific knowledge in order to advance public health,” said Dr Marie-Paula Kieny, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation. “Failure to publicly disclose trial results engenders misinformation, leading to skewed priorities for both R&D and public health interventions.”

It took two more years to get the agreement of some of the world’s largest funders of medical research and international non-governmental organizations on new registry standards.

“Requiring summary results of clinical trials to be made freely available through open access registries within 12 months of study completion is good for both science and society,” said Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust. “Not only will this help ensure that these research findings are more discoverable, but it will also reduce reporting biases, which currently favor publication of trials which have a positive outcome.”

Although this and other steps, such as the EU Clinical Trials Regulation (EUCTR No 536/2014), have been put into practice, there is still a need for further action, as a team at the University of Oxford has discovered. Beginning in 2018, Ben Goldacre, co-founder of the AllTrials campaign, and his colleagues analyzed the records of all 31,821 EUCTR registered trials since 2004. The researchers found that reports of university-led trials lagged behind – only 11% have complied within the one year mandate. In comparison, 68% of company-led trials achieved the targets.

It’s obvious that there is still a backlog of research findings yet to be published, and a lot of data disappears into laboratory filing cabinets. There needs to be a mind shift to even more transparency and open data through open research best practices. This will ultimately serve not only the public by driving innovation forward with better-tested and more effective drugs and vaccines for example, but also the researchers, in the form of recognition of their painstaking work, regardless of whether they produced a “star” paper.

About the Author

Susanne Gaertner

Research Marketing, Wiley // Susanne is a Marketing Manager working in the Customer Marketing team for Wiley’s Research business.

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