Negative results and dodgy papers: keep quiet or publish?

Negative results are very rarely published in the literature. After all, the literature is bursting with new positive results and we don’t have enough time to read all of these, let alone papers describing what doesn’t work. Negative results are dull—who would want to read anything in the Journal of Negative Results?

Up until recently I haven’t had a problem with the status quo. I’m afraid the following discussion is a bit vague because I’m (still) not sure about how much detail I can go into my work, but please bear with me.

I came across a paper published this year which describes the effect of doing something quite specific in a synthesis on nanoparticle shape. Do the thing, get a particular nanoparticle shape (usually quite challenging to obtain); stop doing the thing, you get another shape (easy to obtain). I was quite excited because if it worked it would get around a major barrier to my desired nanoparticles.

I repeated the reaction exactly as the paper described, but it didn’t work.

I repeated the reaction in a flow reactor as it would make it easy to intensify the “thing”. According to the paper, this should definitely give the desired nanoparticles because the morphology selectivity/yield is directly proportional to the intensity of the “thing”. But it still didn’t work.

I’ve now given up on the reaction and moved on to something else. But that my results will not be published means that someone else could also waste a lot of time and money—on equipment, reagents, electron microscopy—repeating the experiment.

What can I do? I think I have three options:

Option 1: Do nothing.

I’ve already made it clear that I don’t like this option. I’m fairly sure the paper is wrong. It bugs me that it exists without some kind of mark against it.

Option 2: Email the authors.

I’m not too keen on this either. I suspect that my email would be ignored. Plus, I would rather any discussion happened in the open, which brings me on to…

Option 3: Blog about it (and possibly email the authors telling them that I blogged about it).

I feel uneasy about this. Could it be perceived as confrontational? Would I get a reputation as a troublemaker? I feel like it is the proper, scientific and open thing to do, but in reality it is absolutely not the done thing. I suspect most researchers would go for option one and do nothing. I could be right and the paper is wrong, but I’d be very happy to be proven wrong and get the reaction working.

What you think? Keep quiet, email or blog? Any other suggestions are welcome.

Friday Night Experiments

Tonight I watched a BBC documentary about Nobel Laureate Andre Geim. Each episode of Beautiful Minds (am I alone in thinking the title is a little bit naff?) covers the story behind the success of a particular scientist. Geim is a really interesting character and I recommend watching it.

One part I found particularly inspiring. He attributes a lot of his success to “Friday Night Experiments”, during which he does some quick experiments to try out new, more adventurous ideas. It was during one of these that he discovered that you can use scotch tape to mechanically exfoliate graphene from graphite.

Obviously there were loads of unsuccessful Friday nights before the discovery of graphene. He went on to say that the most important thing to remember is to know when to cut your losses and try something else. By trying out lots of new ideas every week, seeing what doesn’t work and what is promising, he has made some great breakthroughs in a wide range of fields.

I can see how for a postgraduate it is easy to become obsessed with getting a particular experiment to work or become completely blinkered on a particular sub-sub-sub-area of a discipline. You are meant to work really hard on a particular area in a PhD after all. But rather than working solely on one approach to my research, Geim has inspired me to get in the lab and try out some of my slightly more adventurous ideas every now and then. Most probably won’t work, but one might.