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Interview

The positive side of the negative

David Alcántara Parra champions lost knowledge

Charles Ebikeme 28 June 2009

www.lablit.com/article/520

Rubbish? Let others learn from your mistakes

The publish-or-perish mentality within the scientific community has skewed reported scientific output

The Book of the Damned was published in 1919. In it, Charles Hoy Fort collected data – a procession, in his words, of work that science for whatever reason has decided to exclude. His was an attestation of phenomena science deliberately ignored:

A procession of the damned.
By the damned, I mean the excluded.
We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.

All Results Journals (ARJournals) is the creation of David Alcántara Parra. It seeks to collect all the data science has deemed “not useful”. But ARJournals isn’t a collection of the paranormal: odd phenomenon, lights in the sky or reports of raining animals. Instead, it is a publishing system that seeks to make use of all the data that go unreported within the scientific community. Many journals skew towards only publishing “positive” data; that is, data that successfully proves a hypothesis. ARJournals is the home for “negative” or secondary data: experimental documentation of hypotheses that turn out not to be true, or other experiments that do not lead to an advance of a specific hypothesis but are nevertheless a true rendering of that experiment. For example, if a researcher tests a drug intended to kill cancer cells that proves to be ineffective, it would be very useful for other researchers to know this; but as it is now, such data seldom see the light of day.

Thus it is the remit of ARJournals to publish and archive all this “failed” research to generate high-level knowledge – something that most journals refuse to do. With quantitative publication metrics (such as impact factors and h-indices) becoming more and more of a yardstick to measure a scientist’s worth, and the fact that it’s not what you publish that matters, but simply where, the publish-or-perish mentality within the scientific community has skewed reported scientific output, and therefore science’s shaping of the world.

Tell us a little about ARJournals.

Let me introduce the journals with this question: Do you know the real number of related experiments that have been done by others before your data was published? At present, within the research community, many experiments fail to produce results or expected discoveries. Even though, as in many cases this would be frustrating from an objective point of view, this high percentage of “failed” research can still generate high quality knowledge. But generally, all these experiments are not published anywhere as they are considered not useful for research targets.

The main objective of The All Results Journals focuses on recovering and publishing these valuable pieces of scientific information. These secondary experiments should be taken into account as a vital and key for the development of science. These secondary results are the catalyst for real science-based empirical knowledge.

How did you come up with the idea for ARJournals?

The idea for journals that publish secondary (negative) results has been going around my head since I was in my second year of my Ph.D. I had discussed this idea with several colleagues at work and at scientific meetings and to my surprise they also saw the need for these types of publications. I did some research in 2003 and saw that, at that time, there were no journals that collected these types of results in a general manner. The Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine had recently been launched, but its focus was only in biomedical research. What’s more, I found a lot of references in scientific blogs about the need for such a service, and advantages we would have if researchers would publish these secondary results. So I decided to create a family of journals that would collect these high-value results.

When did you launch ARJournals?

We finished configuring our informatics platform last July 2008 and since then the number of visits has been increasing linearly (more than 1000 visits/month) although we haven’t done any big promotional campaigns yet (because we have no money). This encourages us to continue the journal, because it is being demonstrated that people are interested in our publications. Recently we have also created a page on Facebook for ARJournals where you can give your opinions and advice related to our publications. We are increasing the number of fans of ARJournals within this social media network, making us stronger in our purpose.

How did you get the ball rolling on such a big initiative?

The first and most difficult task for me was to configure the informatic system; we decided to use the Open Journal System platform, a high-quality, open-source software, well proven for editorial tasks. The configuration of the server and database to assure complete protection of the data has been really hard work. The second difficulty we have had to deal with has been to get in contact with scientists around the world and to invite them to participate with our project for free. If you are a big publisher (like Elsevier or The American Chemical Society) you have money enough to reward your editorial team, and it is easy to find collaborators in that way. But in our case, with our philosophy and no sponsors at the moment, it was really hard to get these collaborations. Actually our team is still open to new additions to our Scientific Advisory Boards (in the field of Biology, Chemistry and Physics). Nevertheless we have had very good feedback in all our communications with top-level scientist; they have lent us their support and some of them are now on our Scientific Advisory Boards.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle in getting scientists to publish their failures?

On the one hand, time. Scientists are often very much occupied with writing new proposals and projects to get money for their research. Some of them also lecture, so must spend time preparing their lessons, and at the same time they are teaching new PhD students how to do science. These tasks reduce their time for writing even “normal” scientific results, which represent nearly 35-40% of the total work that has been done in their labs.

On the other hand it’s all about habits. We are not accustomed to writing these types of results, because we haven’t given them the importance they deserve. We throw them away, all our secondary (negative) results, and forget about them. Sometimes they are rescued in a PhD thesis, but that is not the general behaviour. We have to change the engrained idea that these results are useless, and this is quite a difficult task. Time and habits are the two the biggest obstacles we have to deal with, but we see these as new opportunities:

  • The opportunity to certify all your real work (you can use it to justify projects or research in time schedules), not only the good ones
  • The opportunity to improve your field (your secondary results can be used by others in the same way that the positive ones are, avoiding repetition of failed working experiments) acting as a catalyst
  • The opportunity of changing science in the fastest way possible (and in fact society)

You've recently won an award to develop the journal system further; what was the award and what is it for?

Yes, we have already received Bancaja´s award in 2008. This prize is granted every year in Spain for new projects or companies that represent the best examples in management and innovation. We had to fight hard against more than 400 projects and finally they gave us the prize in order to promote the journals. For us, this is another proof that people in non-scientific environments are interested in this new concept and see a good opportunity for continuing.

How do you think ARjournals fits into the world of the h-index and impact factors?

Our journals will cover subjects that are easy to index. The All Results Journals aims to provide the most complete and reliable source of information on “secondary” (or negative) results in several fields (Chemistry, Biology, Nanotechnology and Physics). The emphasis will be on publishing quality articles rapidly and making them freely available to researchers worldwide. Our publication policy is to publish and let readers download the articles for free: a true Open Access policy. All published articles will be deposited immediately upon publication in all widely and internationally recognized open access repository, such as DOAJ. Moreover, our goal is to have all articles indexed by the ISI Web of Knowledge, PubMed, Scirus and Google Scholar (among others) in the short term, therefore providing the maximum exposure to the articles.

When submitting a paper to The All Results Journals we advise the authors to cite their previous work where they have obtained positive results (for example “…and we therefore want to expand our previous methodology [cite the work previously published]”); but, more importantly, we also advise citing papers from ARJournals when presenting a new paper in other journals, giving a reference in all the conditions/reactions/methodology they have been working on before reaching these results (in terms of “…having done a variety of reactions without success [cite your ARJournals paper] we have improved the method and we present here a new methodology to produce…”).

These citations will provide better tools for reviewers to understand the whole work and the real difficulties of the scientist to reach the results they are presenting.

The impact factor will depend how much scientists cite their works in ARJournals when presenting a new paper, but we see our journals with a medium impact factor in a long term way. But we know some of our authors could be very shy at the beginning!

I’d also like to take this opportunity to make a general call for papers. Please check our website and our authors’ guidelines to submit your secondary work today to The All Results Journals.

And remember: Don’t throw away your negative data. All your results are good results!

Related information

You can contact David Alcántara Parra, the Editor and CEO of The All Results Journals, here: alcantara[at]ARJournals.com.