Last week I was in Connecticut speaking to the Connecticut Tree Protective Assocation. It was a great chance to meet arborists on the east coast, and especially heartening to meet yet another group of professionals who demand good science-based information to guide their practices.
After this meeting, I had a thoughtful email from one of the attendees regarding the lack of "negative results" publications in the scientific literature. It’s a message that’s important for academics as well as the gardening public. Here’s Henry’s email:
"Thank you for the comments and presentations you delivered on Thursday, January 19. I hope you had a pleasant and less difficult return journey from Connecticut.
"One point that you mentioned bears emphasis and enlargement although you got it right the first time. Specifically, you mentioned one anecdote that has additional implications, the researcher friend who was reluctant to publish findings that disappointed her because they did not bear out her original conclusions, i.e., the feeling of disappointment and the chagrin to have missed one’s own best guess. These are natural feelings and you are not the first in my experience to notice this very human inclination in scientific researchers. There is a rush to publish meaningful results, but the negative findings tend to pile up in the stack of unpublished material.
"The root of this matter, it seems, lies in the unwritten assumption that science is the means by which we discern and expose the truth. Certainly that’s what is hoped since it could lead to recognition and prestige.
"In fact, it is just as useful, if not more useful, to disclose that which is not true. The beneficiary is science itself and not the individual. Systematically done, this will eventually result in the elimination of errors of fact or judgment and prevent the repetition of similar investigations that for similar reasons might remain unpublished. Viewed in this manner, a failure is as valuable as a success and therefore just as deserving of publication as the most insightful of findings. Failures often precede success.
"Thanks again for your informative presentation. As a former horticultural extension agent, I understand just where you are coming from."
Henry A. F. Young, President
Young Environmental Sciences, Inc.