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Publish That Failure!

After long hours, weeks, and months of labor, the results come in: Negative. Nada. Zip. A researcher's gut reaction? Move on to more promising lines of inquiry. But a multi-institutional group of researchers led by cell biologist Bjorn Olsen of Harvard Medical School in Boston has come up with a different answer: It will soon be asking researchers to write up those unpromising results and publish them in the new Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine.

This new journal may face some challenges: When the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association solicited papers with negative results 2 years ago, it got only a few submissions and just two publishable manuscripts, according to Charles Friedman, director of the Biomedical Informatics Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

Olsen says the online journal will cover the basic biomedical sciences as well as clinical trials. He hopes it will correct a picture he believes is distorted by a general bias against null results, which, he says, can suppress challenges to dogma and allow errors--such as mislabeled cell lines--to propagate. Olson says the new journal will appear on the Web within a few months.

Many scientists agree that making negative results widely available would prevent the duplication of fruitless efforts. Even when negative results do appear in print, they tend to be buried in the methods section and be invisible to database searches, says geneticist Scott Kern of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who founded NOGO, a Web journal dedicated to negative results in cancer genetics. But Friedman doubts whether hordes of thwarted researchers will be eager to publish failures, which aren't noted for advancing careers.

Related sites
BioMed Central's site of upcoming journals