What to do with negative data

By Jordana Lenon
Jan. 11, 2023

Figuring out what to do with negative data is the topic of a new review by Marina Emborg, medical physics professor and director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Preclinical Parkinson’s Research Program. Emborg has conducted her research at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center since 2004.

In her article, “Reframing the perception of outliers and negative data in translational research,” published last month in Brain Research Bulletin, Emborg describes how the publication of negative, or unexpected data from a research project helps scientific research advance.

A photo of vials, a pipette and other lab equipment on a bench.

The article, aimed at scientists who produce and review data for publication, addresses the difference between “negative” data and “useless data”, re-evaluates the importance of the experimental design to generate valuable data, and proposes strategies to work with and report negative results.

“Overall, the paper aims to reframe the perception of working with, reporting and reviewing unexpected data as an opportunity to provide rationale for innovative ideas, prevent the misuse of limited resources and, ultimately, strengthen the reputation of a scientist,” writes Emborg in the paper’s abstract.

From describing a famous dish of unwanted moldy bacteria that led the development of penicillin, to candidly sharing reasons why vexing data may remain unshared, Emborg pulls together many arguments and examples backing up why scientists should consider submitting carefully obtained negative data for publication and how to do it.

Emborg shares her own experiences publishing negative data as well, and additional considerations required when planning studies in nonhuman primates. She emphasizes that advancing research toward therapeutic applications, in particular, depends on not only sharing which strategies work, but also which ones are not worth pursuing, especially to prevent advancing potentially harmful therapies.

Source: Emborg ME. Reframing the Perception of Outliers and Negative Data in Translational Research. Brain Res Bull. 2022 Dec 1:S0361-9230(22)00328-8. Emborg ME.