Research Week 5: The beauty of negative data

Last week was our final research week, and we made it count! We’ve now done infections on two different strains of C. elegans. Our results? While there are subtle phenotypes still to be explored, the obvious ones that we were looking for don’t seem to be different between the infected and control worms. What we have is some beautiful negative data.

Negative data sounds bad, doesn’t it. It’s still data, though, and it’s not really bad. If you’re getting negative data, that means that your experiment is working properly, but you’re not getting the result you were hoping for. As a mentor of mine once told me, you have to let the science tell you what’s going on. In our case, the data is lovely (excellent images, plenty of worms exposed to dermatophytes, etc). But, for what we were measuring, there just wasn’t a difference between the control and infections. So it’s good data, but it’s negative.

This is the part of science that is rarely covered in classes. We carefully design most classroom experiments so that each lab activity illustrates a particular point and you don’t end up with negative data. How nice it would be if real research worked that way! In research, asking one question might get you an answer, but it also generally leads to a million more questions. That’s how I feel at the end of this project. We’ve answered a simple question, but there are so many more I want to test. Maybe next summer.

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3 responses to “Research Week 5: The beauty of negative data

  1. Joyce Durnford

    Nicely put. I like your mentor’s comment better than my mentor’s comment. “Who do you think you are to presume to tell mother nature how to behave?” Or my personal favorite on the value of negative data– “there are no oceans in Ohio.” I look forward to seeing more from you and your students.

  2. There is a well-known issue of publication bias which has led to difficulty publishing negative results, with dangerous distorting effects on the entire world body of knowledge. I think this may be an advantage of crowdfunding: you can make sure that the important negative results get published! Congratulations on the study results and we hope to see the paper!

  3. Thanks Joyce and Nathanael! We are planning how to best share our data with the community. It is certainly difficult to publish small projects with negative data in traditional science journals, but there are other avenues that can be explored – I’ll write a post once things are more certain!

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