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The Null, the Negative, and the Unpublished: Importance of Sharing All Research

It’s common knowledge that “positive” results are often published more frequently and widely than “negative” or “null” results. There is strong evidence for such reporting biases, including both non-publication of full studies, leading to “publication bias” and selective reporting of positive results (or selective non-reporting of negative results) within publications. 

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Publishing negative and null research results makes them more accessible. When the full body of evidence is not available, it becomes difficult to guide decision-making and to prioritize future research. For research teams who conduct systematic reviews, missing information – in particular if the likelihood of it being unpublished or inaccessible is associated with the direction or magnitude of the results – inhibits the ability to reach valid conclusions. 

To best avoid the effect of such biases, researchers must capitalize on all the tools at their disposal, such as using alternative literature search methods (including grey literature), getting help from librarians and information specialists who are trained and experienced in finding it, and accessing resources such as trial registries and open-access portals like osf.io. Using specialized systematic review software like DistillerSR is also helpful thanks to features that allow you to link records through your review, facilitating processes such as comparing methods and outcomes listed in trial registration or protocols to final publications. 

A recent poll on the PLOS ONE Twitter page addressed the reasons why scientists should publish all negative or null results, and why it’s important for scientists to have open-access to research. 

Here is a closer look at some of the most important reasons why sharing ALL scientific results is critical to both the way we conduct systematic reviews and to the advancement of scientific research, in general:

 

1. Helps researchers avoid waste

Access to the full body of evidence helps guide research priorities and reduces waste. Research teams are generally strapped for resources and this is true for both those conducting primary research and those conducting evidence syntheses. Whether it’s securing funding, lining up qualified team members, or even finding enough time, a lot of juggling and management is required. Sharing the findings of all research means that the associated expenses are not wasted. Furthermore, it may decrease the likelihood that other groups will waste further resources unknowingly aiming to answer the same questions. 

For systematic review teams, if negative/null results of primary research are published as often as positive results it will lead to more efficient access to the evidence, which means saving precious time contacting experts, regulatory agencies, funding agencies or other companies to obtain unpublished literature, and will ultimately increase review validity. 

 

2. Accelerates the discovery of new evidence

The demand for evidence-based research is gaining momentum and prominence all the time. Organizations require accurate information at a rate we have never seen before. Since evidence-based research is used to inform decisions surrounding critical topics such as safety, healthcare, and more, it’s absolutely essential that the process for finding and distilling evidence is as efficient as possible. 

Systematic review software like DistillerSR is one helpful tool that expedites the process without sacrificing validity. However, as every researcher knows, the output is only as good as the input. If information is missing or if researchers need to go to painstaking lengths to find it, it hinders the process and slows everything down. By publishing all evidence (or even making additional unpublished resources available via open-source portals) researchers can access information more quickly to keep up with demand. 

 

3. Supports replication and validation

Publishing or sharing methods and results enables replication, and reproducibility is a hallmark of valid research. Having access to all published results allows researchers to more easily replicate methods when appropriate. Whether replicated studies validate and add strength to findings or highlight areas of uncertainty, both congruent and discordant results enrich the knowledge base.

 

Leveraging all available resources to keep up with demand

Science needs to be transparent. Publishing only “one side” of a story hinders the advancement of science and increases the complexity to conduct valid, comprehensive systematic reviews. Whether it’s publishing results of primary research, or publishing the results of a systematic review, the more information that is readily available, the better for everyone.

Initiatives such as prospective study registration, publication of research protocols and increased access to unpublished materials (methods, results) continue to change the research landscape. 

Systematic review software is a way to further improve efficiency and transparency in your systematic reviews. DistillerSR has numerous features designed to help researchers maximize resources, improve their workflow, and reduce errors. See it work in real-time with a free demo today!

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Author

Jennifer Baguss

As a marketing specialist, Jennifer Baguss brings years of digital content writing and marketing experience to the EP team. Her background in journalism makes her a thoughtful and concise writer with a keen interest in taking complicated concepts and making them easily digestible for those who wish to learn. When she's not writing, you can catch her on two wheels, mountain biking, road biking, and even fat biking in the winter!