A plea for published “negative results”

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 There is a rush to publish meaningful results, but the negative findings tend to pile up in the stack of unpublished material.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errors of fact or judgment and prevent the repetition of similar investigations that for similar reasons might remain unpublished.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.

Published by

Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and a Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - www.facebook.com/TheGardenProfessors "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - www.facebook.com/groups/GardenProfessors Books: http://www.sustainablelandscapesandgardens.com

2 thoughts on “A plea for published “negative results””

  1. This certainly makes a lot of sense. The amount of time and resources devoted to duplication of things that don’t work should be eliminated in all scientific fields. If the negative results were published, maybe there would be more positive results down the road.

  2. QUOTE:
    “There is a rush to publish meaningful results, but the negative findings tend to pile up in the stack of unpublished material.”

    Actually there is a very good logical reason for this. With your experience and if you really take some time to mediate on the matter, then you’ll understand why negatives are not reported. I actually read an article by someone on this very thing and I’ll have to dig it up and post it if you wish.

    In the scientific community(and this goes along with your we’re all human reference) there is to be acquired, a whole lot of fame, glitter and glory for the researcher. This is a powerful motivator.

    Another more important point though
    is when one is publishing and is motivated by other needs such as more research funding, keeping one’s academic career intact, other employment, etc.

    The article I allouded to mentioned that it isn’t so much that the researcher lies when they publish the 30% that was positive and left out the 70% that was negative. They simply didn’t tell the whole truth, that may be rationalized as not actually lying. Needless to say that 30% grows in volumes as exagerating and embellishing create an illustion of greater success that what actually was. I find that doing your own testing according to their gospel will bare out the truth quicker than waiting and wading thru tons of other material. Being a gardener/landscaper, proving should be easy, as many of your articles of personal experience have explained to us all.

    Thanks for your writings, I enjoy them.

    Cheers, Kevin

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