October 26, 2020

Why the Reporting of Null Results is Essential To Research Progress

As a researcher, you likely entered your career with aspirations of making a significant scientific finding that made a difference to society. While this may happen occasionally, the reality is that most of your research, including clinical trials, will result in minimal impacts, or even “null” results. It might be tempting to scratch that project and move on to something that could be more beneficial instead of taking the time to write up your results and submit them to a journal, but the truth is that reporting these null results is actually essential to research progress.

The career path of a scholar, regardless of their field, usually begins with the passion to make a change in the world somehow. Their goals of making a difference lead them to want to perform research with positive, major outcomes by finding a significant scientific result that impacts their field somehow. But while this does happen occasionally, researchers are more likely to engage in experiments that are mundane, with minimal results or even “null” findings.

When the outcome is so minimally impactful, or neutral entirely, it’s tempting to chalk the work up to wasted time or lessons learned and move on without spending the next few months on a research manuscript that shows no exciting conclusion. However, these findings are often just as important, if not more so, than some positive correlations, and writing them up can be beneficial - and even essential - to research progress.

What is a “Null” Finding?

The term “null,” in regards to reporting research findings, is derived from the crucial null hypothesis, which is part of the scientific method itself. Null is the neutral component of any research experiment in which variables are attempted to be controlled, and then, through your hypothesis and study design, you work to nullify - that is, disprove - the null hypothesis you initially set up.

Because it’s more likely that your null hypothesis is accurate and no change will occur, these null results are typical. However, most journals don’t want to publish an experiment in which no positive outcome occurred. This includes both null findings and negative results. Positive findings are published more frequently and faster than either of the other outcomes. Yet null reporting plays a crucial role in a lot of evidence-based research and growth.

The Importance of Publishing Your Null Results

As a scholar, you of all people understand the frustration that comes with doing work that results in information that was already available. If only the knowledge had been readily accessible, you could have based your next research step on it and saved yourself lots of time.

Null results might not have a major implication for you, but they could be huge for other researchers. Publishing your findings has benefits such as:

●      Offering a form of checks and balances for new research ideas. When all findings are always positive, there is no way to check to ensure that they are all accurate and unbiased. False positives exist in science, and without null or negative results, it’s harder to see the whole picture of treatment or outcome.

●      Scholars have less time and resources wasted on their experiment when the processes are already there and don’t need to be repeated. Questions can be duplicated among researchers as they look for answers to lead them through their investigation. When the results they find are verified by other studies or the studies are already performed and can be built off of, it saves time and resources.

●      The replicability crisis is reduced since there are more recordings of null or negative findings to aid in a meta-analysis of results or to help with replicating studies that haven’t been thoroughly documented.

More journals today are realizing the importance of the null finding. Some even focus primarily on publishing articles with null or negative outcomes. As a scholar, please understand that your null and negative experiments are worthy of just as much importance as a positive outcome, and should be treated the same way.

Tags Research Null Results Researcher
Jason Collins
Jason is a writer for many niche brands with experience “bringing stories to life” for both startups and corporate partners.

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