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Why one science journal wants to publish negative studies

Spencer Platt Getty Images News

If science were a TV show, it would be a lot more like Modern Family than Breaking Bad: the promising and positive results from studies are usually on display, not the dark, ambiguous underbelly of negative and inconclusive research findings.

This is because research suffers from what's known as "publication bias": not all studies that are conducted actually get published in journals, and the ones that do tend to have positive (i.e. statistically significant) and dramatic conclusions. This is a big problem because it means we have a biased picture of what's going on in science, and many researchers waste their time and funding repeating work that's already been done.

The issue is so severe right now that some have wondered whether negative results are disappearing entirely from some countries and fields of science.

Now, one journal is trying to correct publication bias: PLoS One this week launched its "Missing Pieces" collection of negative, null, and inconclusive studies — in other words, a celebration of the seamier side of botched and boring experiments that usually never sees the light of day.

Articles in the collection include one that failed to find that women's support groups had a significant impact on postpartum disorder in Bangladeshi mothers (despite promising findings in similar research in India) and a study that could not replicate four previous experiments on the "depletion model" of self control, an increasingly popular idea that posits that self control is a limited resource that runs out in people.

"The publication of negative results, such as the works featured in the collection, is essential to research progress," the journal writes. This new home for science's "missing pieces" can "prevent duplication of research effort and potentially expedites the process of finding positive results."

The new initiative isn't happening in isolation, however. It's part of a wider push to improve how science is done. Meta-researchers have long documented the problem of publication bias, and there have been other measures to address it. As a rule, PLoS ONE already makes a point of accepting negative studies for publication, and the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine is trying to fight research bias, one blundered or dull bit of research at a time.

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