There is clear value to journals of negative results because they correct a bias towards publishing correlations:
A handful of journals that publish only negative results are gaining traction, and new ones are on the drawing boards.
“You hear stories about negative studies getting stuck in a file drawer, but rigorous analyses also support the suspicion that journals are biased in favor of positive studies,” says David Lehrer of the University of Helsinki, who is spearheading the new Journal of Spurious Correlations.
After a slow start in 2002, that journal is receiving more and better papers, says Dr. Olsen. One found that, contrary to other reports, the relative length of the bones of a woman’s index finger and ring finger may not be related to her exposure to testosterone in utero. Another found that a molecule called PYY doesn’t have a big influence on body weight; another, that variations in a gene that earlier studies had associated with obesity in mice and in American and Spanish women isn’t linked to obesity in French men or women.
Hopefully, each of these reports kept researchers, including those at drug companies, from wasting time looking for ways to repair the consequences of the supposed genetic association. But it isn’t clear that any would have been published without the new journal.
These reports of negative results are very important, but will people subscribe to journals of negative results? This is a good example of papers that should be published in free online journals.
Questionable correlations between a gene and cancer are the bread-and-butter of NOGO, the Journal of Negative Observations in Genetic Oncology, which Dr. Kern edits. “Fully half [of discoveries] of novel mutations in tumors, we found, were not confirmed in the subsequent literature,” he says. “You expect to see follow-ups if the claims held up, so the fact that we didn’t casts doubt on the original claim. But that wasn’t explicitly reported.”
Why are scientists coy about publishing negative data? In some cases, says Dr. Kern, withholding them keeps rivals doing studies that rest on an erroneous premise, thus clearing the field for the team that knows that, say, gene A doesn’t really cause disease B.
I once spent months trying to reproduce, without success, a paper in a top journal claiming that lipids had huge effects on the nervous system. I even flew overseas to visit the lab of the guy making the claim and made liposomes in his lab and brought them back. In the end I concluded that the effects were due to the solvents used to make the liposomes. I ran this hypothesis by the author of the original paper and he told me that solvents aren’t interesting, but lipids were interesting. I didn’t publish my negative results, and subsequently heard that others before and after me had failed to reproduce the results.
Having a forum to report negative results is important, but it is not clear that journals of negative results are a better place to publish than online free journals.