Mind to Market

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Dark Matter of Science

A scientist sets out to show that a gene is linked to a disease and runs an experiment to prove it. But things don't work out as planned and results show that the gene has no connection to the disease. Scrap the results and head back to the lab? This is in fact what most researchers do; putting aside "negative" results in favor of results from experiments that show "positive" results. But are negative results any less valuable than positive ones?

Although what tends to be exciting in science are the conditions in which one entity affects another, the lack of affect can be useful in pointing a researcher away from an invalid model and toward a more accurate one. But if these negative results are not published or transferred to the scientific community there is nothing explicit to prevent other researchers from going down the same dead-end.

With the costs of publishing, both in labor and capital, can publishing negative results be justified? Many journals do not publish negative results per se, although many articles published with positive results may cite negative results that were encountered along the way. A handful of journals have recently been established for the sole purpose of publishing negative results. The Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine, the Journal of Negative Observations in Genetic Oncology (NOGO), and the Journal of Negative Results Ecology & Evolutionary Biology are three in Biology. It's interesting to note that NOGO puts the cost of an average negative study at between $5,000 and $20,000 per gene investigated. This certainly provides economic incentive for publishing negative results.

As science moves into the informatics age where knowledge is more readily accessible and distributed, value differences between "positive" and "negative" results will undoubtedly diminish. Although no one will ever describe a negative result as a "breakthrough" no breakthrough has ever been achieved without its preceding dead-ends.

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