Hello there bloggies! Welcome to Science Sunday!

As regular readers of this blog may remember, I did my PhD research on the genetics of reading and language disorders. I like to keep tabs on the literature on those topics, even though I work on different traits now.

The other day I came across a paper on one of the most studied “language” genes FOXP2. The paper was from Hammerschmidt and colleagues and titled “A humanized version of Foxp2 does not affect ultrasonic vocalization in adult mice”. Here’s a link to the pubmed entry and the open access (yay!) article.

Of course, the article was of interest to me as it was a clever investigation of an important language gene using a mouse model. But, the title itself caught my eye right away, and it had nothing to do with the science. It all came down to the word “not”.

When most of us think about a scientific report in the news or in a scientific journal, we typicaly think of scientists presenting new findings and mechanistic insight into a scientific or technological problem. We tend to think of the researchers finding something. Whether it is a new association between variables, a new method to do a process, or a new implication for a pathway, the assertion is that the team of researchers actually found something.

But, this is not always the case. For anyone who has spent time in lab or doing research knows that negative findings are a constant fixture in science. Experimental designs don’t work out. Hypotheses are proven wrong. Previous findings in the literature cannot be verified.

Unfortunately, publishing these sort of negative findings where outcomes are null or even just go against the accepted collective thoughts of the field can be incredibly difficult. Journals tend not to find these manuscripts flashy enough for publication and to think that these papers won’t be as well as papers that may make a bigger splash in the field and in the press. These scientifically valid and important papers can end cast aside as they gather desk in a PI’s desk.

If these findings can’t be published, then how will others learn about these results? How can others in the field evaluate the findings? Without the communication and presentation of these results, an inaccurate landscape of the scientific literature emerges. This lack of information can lead to improper study design and significantly alter the course of scientific research and discovery.

On a more individual level, not publishing negative results can have a massive impact on the trainee or junior member who has devoted so much time and effort on the work. As mentioned in a previous Trainee Tuesday post, some employers judge a trainee’s productivity by the publications. That means a highly qualified PhD student/postdoc can be judged negatively because they cannot publish their elegantly performed negative results.

While negative or null results are not as flashy or newsworthy as other results, these experiments and their results are just as important to the scientific endeavor. They help guide future experimentation and evaluate the findings/conclusions of other experiments. Kudos to the research team above and the journal for publishing these results and communicating them to the scientific community!

Thank you stopping by Science Sunday! Do you think null or negative results need to be published more frequently? Let me know in the comments or on twitter @DrFsThoughts.

Enjoy your Sunday!

-Dr. F

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