Negative Results In Science Are Common. So Why Aren't They Reported?

27/10/2016 16:09

Recently I've been gripped by the latest news coming from CERN. At the beginning of the year, scientists reported an intriguing 'data bump' in results from the Large Hadron Collider. This bump was exciting. It hinted at the existence of a new 'game-changing' particle.

But it wasn't to be. Under further scrutiny the bump disappeared. It was a false alarm; a mere experimental glitch or statistical anomaly (and nothing to do with a weasel this time.)


News of the data bump's demise garnered almost as much media attention as news of its 'discovery' barely 6 months before. Scientists began to question what this negative result might mean for physics .

Negative results are just as common in medical research, but not usually quite so newsworthy. We're more used to positive stories announcing the latest big breakthrough, the next new treatment. But these one-sided success stories don't really represent the reality of medical science. They don't fully grasp the rollercoaster of failure and frustration which necessarily supports just about every success .

So we know negative results in medical research exist, and we know they can be just as important as 'positive' breakthroughs. So where are they? Believe the conspiracy theories and you might think scientists are sitting on hoards of data, which if they only saw fit to publish would instantaneously provide the answer to cancer. In fact, the 'negative results' problem is much more nuanced than that.

For starters, in 'pre-clinical' medical research (the type of early-stage research which needs to take place in a lab, before a prototype new drug can get tested in patients), a negative result can take many different forms. It could mean a failed experiment or a failed idea, or maybe just a different answer to the one you were expecting. A researcher has to judge whether using valuable resources to pin down and publish these results is worthwhile. Sometimes it is, often it's just too hard to do.

I've gone into a full discussion of just what a negative result can mean in the context of this kind of early-stage research here , drawing on the wisdom of three eminent scientists from Worldwide Cancer Research's expert Scientific Committee - Dr Angeliki Malliri, Professor Andrew Fry and Professor Paul Coffer.

But there is one area of medical research where the failure to make negative results publically available is frankly unforgivable, and that's clinical trials.

Clinical trials compare the effect of one treatment against another. They are the final stages in the research pipeline, their aim is to determine beyond reasonable doubt whether a treatment works and is safe in people. Every well-designed trial tells us something useful about the drug being tested- whether it is effective and safe, whether it isn't, or whether more work is needed to find out.

So I was dismayed to read that the results of an estimated half of all clinical trials have never made it into the public domain . Many of these are trials have negative findings, or are considered to have 'failed' in their aims.

Now the reasons for this are varied, and not all down to pharmaceutical company profiteering. But this seeming bias against publishing negative clinical trial results matters because it affects real people. People who volunteer for trials, who in the case of cancer can be in the final weeks or months of their life, expect that their contribution will ultimately help medicine to progress. If data remain locked in a drawer because they didn't fit the preconceived story, or simply because it is harder to publish negative results, that won't happen.

And doctors make decisions about treatments based on clinical trial data. If they can only access the positive findings, they are just not getting all the information they need to make rational and well balanced decisions. If you don't believe it, try it for yourself with The Economist's clever clinical trial publishing game .

Fortunately, things are slowly changing, thanks to efforts by regulatory bodies and the clinical trial industry itself, catalysed by the AllTrials campaign. The aim of AllTrials is to see 'all trials registered, all results reported'. Hundreds of organisations and thousands of individuals have already lent their support. If you haven't already, I urge you to join them here .

So not all negative results in medical research are necessarily the same. Sometimes it's ok if a few failed experiments never make the light of day. But in the case of clinical trials, the data is just too important, and the answers affect too many lives, for negative results to be ignored.