It happens to all of us. We sweat and toil in the lab only to produce — nothing. Experiments that don’t work. Data no one cares to see. Unpromising results, dead ends, and vague thoughts of ending it all, by which I mean leaving science and getting an MBA.
And when it comes time to publish what we’ve accomplished, we freeze. Our results aren’t worth reporting as they are, and ethics won’t let us exaggerate them — unless it’s in a grant application.
Last month, I learned about a publication that has been quickly gaining popularity, the (JNRBM). Published, presumably, by a gang of dour curmudgeons who hate everything, JNRBM openly welcomes the data that other journals won’t touch because it doesn’t fit the unspoken rule that all articles must end on a cheery note of promise. (“This could lead to new therapies!” boast most journal articles, relying on the word “could” to keep their platitudes accurate and the exclamation point to boost excitement, stand for “factorial,” or make a clicking sound, depending on your field.)
You might imagine that JNRBM is a place where losers gather to celebrate their failures, kind of like Best Buy or Division III football. But JNRBM meets two important needs in science reporting: the need to combat the positive spin known as publication bias and the need to make other scientists feel better about themselves.
(Unfortunately, if you don’t work in biomedicine, you’re still screwed. The Journal of Negative Results in Zoology, for example, is just called “not seeing animals.” And the Journal of Negative Results in Homeopathy is the entire field of homeopathy.)
You can get published– it’s the easiest way to pad your CV since the invention of 1.25-inch margins.
When it comes time to put our science into words, why do we pretend that the negative results never happened? Why do we have so much trouble accepting that sometimes our hypotheses are disproved? But most importantly, where was this freaking journal when I was in grad school? You can get published even when the experiment fails — it’s the easiest way to pad your CV since the invention of 1.25-inch margins.
As first-year grad students, we did short rotations in labs of our choice. At the end of 2 months, we’d all gather to present our data in front of the department. (This led to my favorite joke that I ever told during a scientific seminar: “I just spent the last 2 months rotating in Dr. Schleif’s lab … and boy am I dizzy!”)
The other first-years would listen intently, while the older, savvier grad students stole sandwiches and left. Because every rotation talk sounded exactly the same:
Science is full of negative results, so thank goodness we now have a place to publish them. (Though this raises the question: If there are more negative results in science than positive ones, and this is the only journal for them, is this the most selective journal in the world?)
But as long as we’re dreaming of new journals, why stop there? Here are a few other science publications that ought to exist:
And, what the hell, these don’t follow the pattern, but here are some more journals I’d like to see:
As long as we’re adding journals, why not change the whole landscape of scientific publishing? After all, many people are saying that scientific publishing is broken. It’s an industry mired in tradition, favoring formatting guidelines that require a separate Ph.D. to understand, so it’s time to bring it into the 21st century. Here’s how we can remake our beloved scientific journals:
Yes, the JNRBM provides a needed service. After all, few journals reflect the kinds of results we see in our labs every day — i.e., crappy ones.
But if we work at it, we can revolutionize the whole system. We can topple these institutions with their esoteric titles and their expensive reprints, and we can found a new method of disseminating our results from the ground up. We can take the antiquated, biased organizations that tacitly force us to shape and frame data that ought to be expressed objectively, and we can make them reflect the reality that science is messy, indirect, and doesn’t necessarily tell a simple story.
Or we can just steal some sandwiches and leave. Either way.