Got Negative Data? PLoS ONE Wants To Publish It!

Nov 23 2008 Published by under Conduct of Science

There has been substantial recent lamentation concerning the nature of scientific publishing, and the perceived requirement that experimental results "tell a story" in order to be published in the peer-reviewed literature. For example, The Bean Mom recently stated the following:

The data that's confusing, that doesn't fit a paper's hypothesis, usually isn't published. No suprise--why would any author include data that contradicts or confuses the story she/he is trying to tell? Negative results usually also aren't published. That transgeneic mouse with no phenotype? Will probably languish unknown. But if the experiements were rigorous and carefully controlled, then even puzzling and negative data is valid data. And when that data is not communicated, it can be to the detriment of the whole scientific community, as researchers waste time and money heading down blind ends . . .


Well, Comrade PhysioProf is here to tell you that there is now an excellent peer-reviewed home for publishing exactly these kinds of experimental results: PLoS ONE. Here are PLoS ONE's stated criteria for publication:

To be accepted for publication in PLoS ONE, research articles must satisfy the following criteria:
1. The study presents the results of primary scientific research.
2. Results reported have not been published elsewhere.
3. Experiments, statistics, and other analyses are performed to a high technical standard and are described in sufficient detail.
4. Conclusions are presented in an appropriate fashion and are supported by the data.
5. The article is presented in an intelligible fashion and is written in standard English.
6. The research meets all applicable standards for the ethics of experimentation and research integrity.
7. The article adheres to appropriate reporting guidelines (e.g. CONSORT, MIAME, STROBE, EQUATOR) and community standards for data availability.

There is nothing in there about "broad interest to a diverse audience" or "importance to the field" or whatthefuckever. If the experiments are solid, you're good to go!
UPDATE: A comment by Bean-Mom reminds me to point out that PLoS ONE is indexed by Pubmed, and is open access.

18 responses so far

  • ard says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. I can see people trying to get more publications this way. New finding: amputating a leg doesn't have an effect on lung function!!!

  • Scott says:

    We report here no evidence for the existence of God.

  • bean-mom says:

    "Alternative Academic" tipped me off to another journal that you will be interested to hear of: "Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine." Yes, it's a real journal! http://www.jnrbm.com/
    From the journal's info page:
    "...Not every unexpected observation, controversial conclusion or proposed model will turn out to be of such groundbreaking significance. Nor will they even be confirmed by subsequent scientific progress. However, we strongly believe that such "negative" observations and conclusions, based on rigorous experimentation and thorough documentation, ought to be published in order to be discussed, confirmed or refuted by others. In addition, publishing well documented failures may reveal fundamental flaws and obstacles in commonly used methods, drugs or reagents such as antibodies or cell lines, ultimately leading to improvements in experimental designs and clinical decisions."
    Low impact factor, surely, but it *is* tracked by PubMed.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Perhaps my background in physics leads me to a more positive view of negative results. On that subject, I have two words:
    Michaelson-Morley.

  • Bean-Mom's comment reminds me that I forgot to point out that PLoS ONE is indexed by Pubmed. I will update the post.

  • bill says:

    Interested readers may also want to look at BioMed Central Research Notes, which is also indexed by PubMed and describes itself thus:

    ...an open access journal publishing scientifically sound research across all fields of biology and medicine, enabling authors to publish updates to previous research, software tools and databases, data sets, small-scale clinical studies, and reports of confirmatory or 'negative' results. Additionally the journal welcomes descriptions of incremental improvements to methods as well as short correspondence items and hypotheses.
    [...]
    BMC Research Notes provides a home for short publications, case series, incremental updates to previous work, results of individual experiments and similar material that currently lacks a suitable outlet. The intention is to reduce the loss suffered by the research community when such results remain unpublished. Submissions are fully peer-reviewed, and will be handled by an international board of academic Associate Editors spanning all biological and medical disciplines.

    Disclaimer: I am one such Associate Editor (it's not a paid position).

  • James F says:

    There's also the The Journal of Negative Results in Genetic Oncology, or "NOGO."
    I've been pleasantly surprised at the level of research quality at PLoS ONE, since the only real qualification for publication is technical soundness, not novelty. As someone who published a paper there, I hope for selfish reasons that it doesn't become a journal of negative results. It's bad enough that these guys published there.

  • whimple says:

    And the page charges for BMC Research Notes are only about half as much as for PLoS One

  • S. Rivlin says:

    For years there was a very popular scientific journal of the title "The Journal of Irreproducible Results." I think that when the editor retired, no one was willing to take the position and the journal ceased to exist.

  • noaf says:

    J. Irrep Results is even worse than J. Neg Data. At least one would hope the negative findings were a consistent non-finding. Hah!

  • Becca says:

    It's a pity the editor of J. Irrep Results retired. It was a lifelong ambition to publish there. Perhaps I should reframe my ambition, and try to become it's editor.
    Also, NOGO is a fantastic acronym. Way better than "JND".
    And come to think of it, genetic oncology is one of those areas we desperately need to publish negative data.

  • Coturnix says:

    Except that "The Journal of Irreproducible Results" is a satirical publication. Brilliant - I have a couple of their Best Of collections.
    Paper mentioned by James F is an example of a paper in which one of the authors may be despicable and may have nasty associations, but that is irrelevant as the paper itself contains no pseudoscientific claims - it may even backfire on the authors (assuming their bad motivations) if others start using their software to test various claims.
    So yes, PLoS ONE welcomes both positive and negative results - it is a new type of journal. The manuscripts are only judged by the quality of work, which apparently (according to authors' testimonies) leads to excellent and thorough peer-review instead of jockeying for influence. Some papers will be useful new pieces in a puzzle, some may gain a lot of media coverage and lots of future citations - it is up to the scientific community to decide after publication.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Thank you Coturnix for explaining the pups here what the Journal of Irreproducible Results was all about. This was a journal that was part of the fun of science. The money-oriented, grant-decorated, impact factor-driven scientist of today would not have time to read such a journal.

  • That is so awesome. The inability to publish, useful negative data has always been frustrating. I feel like we're slowly inching toward better science publishing.

  • DSKS says:

    Yes, the loss of J. Irrep Res. was a serious blow to unserious science. There should be an effort to revitalize the publication.
    The results of our failed Friday afternoon experiments have had to go to Sci. Creat. Quart., which sadly has a much lower IF than the J. Irrep. Res. did in its heyday. That said, SCQ's magic 8-ball peer review process is easily one of the fastest in the business.

  • Kevin says:

    Molecular and Cellular Biology started a section at the back of the journal several years ago called something like "Mouse models with minimal or complex phenotypes" so that people who made a knockout that didn't present a phenotype could still publish the data--such that no one would have to duplicate the effort. I thought it was great. Also, I liked the "we made this knockout, and all this crazy shit that we didn't expect happened. Please help us figure it out."

  • James F says:

    MCB is also very generous with paper length limits and does a great job with figure reproduction. The paper quality can vary somewhat within an issue, but on the whole it's very solid and there are some real gems in there.

  • The Journal of Irreproducible Results lives! Please subscribe, and give gift subscriptions to everyone you know who needs a laugh. $26.95/year. http://www.jir.com .
    Norman Sperling, Editor
    413 Poinsettia Avenue
    San Mateo, CA 94403 USA

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