Failure is not must always be an option…

I am a scientist (if you know me at all, you’re saying “duh” right about now) but I am not a science cheerleader. By this I mean that I do not try to uphold the ivory tower at all costs. Primarily because, if we start to do this, then we are no longer doing science. That said, let me shed some light on a glaring problem with the way that science is done nowadays.

Most institutions are “publish or perish” in fact if not outright stated. This means that, as a working scientist, you are regularly expected to publish your results. This part, I’m actually okay with, in principle at least. Putting things in to the public domain is a good thing. But now for the two not-so-good things (there are more than two, but I’ll only talk about these today).

First, most journals do not put their content in to the public domain. You have to pay (and pay through the nose) in order to see it. This is not conducive to good science. Mind you, there are attempts to mitigate this. There’s the physics pre-print archive covering physics, the public library of open science with bioscience-related content, and most journals now have a free content section. There are even (illegal) torrent sites and aggregators dedicated to swiping content from closed journals and sharing with the world (nope, I won’t provide a link for those). So this is slowly getting a bit better.

Second, and much more importantly, failure is not an option when it comes to publication. With very few exceptions, only successful experiments and proven theorems are accepted for publication. This is so absolutely wrong that it almost defies logic. Science would be far more transparent and progress much more rapidly (and more importantly, honestly) if null results could be published. Again, this is slowing starting to change. Recently there have been attempts to rectify this to a degree. the Journal of Negative Results is one such attempt, though it limits itself to the biosciences.

Clearly these two factors are a huge hindrance to the reasonable progression of scientific research. I myself have been stymied in the past, needing to see a particular set of results, but being unwilling or unable to pay the exorbitant journal access fees. Additionally, I could have been save a lot of trouble had null results been published. But that’s now how scientific publishing works. And so I (and countless others) have wasted a significant amount of time following paths that could have easily been avoided, if only access were more open and honest failures held in equal esteem to successes.

I’ll end it here, though I’ll pick this up again shortly. And if you’d like to read more, here’s a better written article:

Unpublished Results Hide the Decline Effect