The art of publishing ‘Stuff That Doesn’t Work’

Sneeze-plot correlations are important too

Sneeze-plot correlations are important too

What do you do when your plotted data looks more like a sneeze-splatter than a straight line? Publish it anyway! The current dearth of Stuff That Doesn’t Work in the scientific literature dooms researchers to repeatedly try and fail over and over again. It doesn’t have to be this way. Publishing null results is possible. It just takes a bit of creativity.

The scientific literature is full of papers with the same format: “Based on the current understanding of this topic, we formed a hypothesis, tested it and it worked”.

Anyone deviating from this formula would be shot down by the peer review process. This leaves many a researcher abandoning reams of data just because the magical statistics program didn’t find the expected correlation.

There is nothing wrong with burying a sentence or two in another, related, paper that says “by the way, tried this and it didn’t work”. It has bought me great joy when I’ve happened upon these little gems of knowledge so I am fully supportive of this strategy.

And yet it can be gut-wrenching that, after months of data collection and interpretation, your whole project is condensed into a single sentence just because A did not lead to B after all.

Things not behaving as expected yield amazingly useful data and as such can and should be published as a stand-alone paper. What these sorts of results need is re-wording the story that the data actually tells.

Firstly revisit the knowledge gained from your experiments. Why have the data not produced the expected result? Maybe current knowledge is based only on model systems and your results are from complex real-world samples. Or perhaps you used a new and improved technique that shows something in more detail than has been previously possible.

Then, with that story in mind, it is easy to alter the wording of the project title to give it a more positive spin. So “Does A cause B?” where the response is “Actually no. It doesn’t.” becomes “Investigation of real-world samples using state-of-the-art technology.”

Writing these sorts of papers can be much more difficult than writing the standard “Oh look, it did exactly what we expected” paper but it can still be rewarding. At least then your data can contribute to the current state of knowledge on a topic and that’s really what research is all about.

And if, after months of work, your results aren’t showing what you expected, then undoubtedly you are operating at the cutting edge of science where the literature is insufficient to properly explain the phenomena. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Embracing the scientist stereotype

Being a scientist is cool. It means you know absolutely everything there is to know about anything across all disciplines without having to even glance at the latest literature on the topic. At least that’s according to movies, and movies would never lie.

This ridiculous stereotype is so often regurgitated that non-scientists are starting to think it’s true. But to be able to do their job, a good research scientist needs to be a “T” person. We have a breadth of knowledge sufficient to understand how our research fits into a broader context and the depth of knowledge to advance scientific understanding in our particular field.

Which is exactly why the scientist stereotype doesn’t make sense. Science has been studied in so much detail across so many different topics by some many people for so long that it is rare to find anyone across more than one discipline, let alone a true polymath who knows everything about all disciplines. The last true polymath to make any significant scientific discoveries was maybe Da Vinci.

I understand that a movie audience is supposed to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. It’s just that the story would be a whole lot better if the writers bothered to spend two minutes on Google to discover that measuring the purity of a chemical is not done with a light microscope. (Yes, really. That one still makes me cry a little.)

But if we were to look at a movie as just a story, the scientist character is useful. They enable the writer to explain the goings on at a particular point in the tale or unveil a discovery that leads to a new twist in the story.

Overall it’s the story matters, not the details.

The limitations of budget and script-writing prevent the more accurate depiction of different scientists from different disciplines solving the range of problems required for the movie or TV series.

In terms of the eccentric or socially awkward stereotype, it could be worse. Accountants are always boring personality-vacuums and police must suffer the continual humiliation of having amateur detectives solve their crimes for them.

If a stereotype has to exist for scientists I’m glad it’s one of a knowledge-laden virtual superhero.

But just once I’d really love to see the scientist character roll their eyes at someone and say, “Why are you asking me? I’m an organic chemist. You need to ask a microbiologist. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to rewire your house, why ask a chemist about biological systems?” and then march out of the room. Ah, nerd fantasies.