Please, Be Negative!

by Ralf Neumann, Labtimes 03/2017

The dawning of the new morning is shimmering brightly through the leaves and my eyelids are slowly drooping... when suddenly, “Hey, Owl, nice to see you!” a graceful Swift lady passes by with a few powerful flaps of her wings. “Have a good sleep,” she looks back once more with a cheerful smile, before swooping off in an elegant curve – and she is gone...

Since her “appearance” a short while ago, it has been hopeless to think of any sleep. “WHO WAS THIS LADY?” my brain has been wondering again and again, in loud capitals, but I fail to grasp the faintest memory. She knows me – that’s clear. But where did we meet? And what did we possibly have to do with each other?

Arrgh, sometimes my terrible memory of names and faces is a real curse – another silly consequence of our loner nature. We owls are by no means social beings, so what’s the point of religiously remembering anybirdy...

It was okay when I was still in science. Doing research was quite good training. I remembered almost everything at the time: papers, experiments, talks, buffer recipes, even names and faces… But that was long ago. And now as an old owl... a truly old owl...

Yes, Old! That’s the keyword! Memory lane, here I come! This was the young Swift lady I met several summers ago, whilst visiting my old chap, Professor Woodpecker, in the Old Forest, an hour’s flight from here. Hah! Now it’s coming back to me...

Swift was doing her PhD in Woodpecker’s lab, at the time. But how tremendously different our meeting there was, compared to her cheery appearance today! Okay, we owls are not exactly empathic birds (loner nature!) but even I had noticed the earnest desperation in her eyes as she was talking to Woodpecker on his branch. When I landed on Woodpecker’s opposite side, they quickly exchanged another couple of sentences – and then, despondently, she had flown off to one of the neighbouring trees.

I could not help but immediately ask Woodpecker, “What’s the matter with her?”

“A catastrophe,” he replied. “Two summers and one winter of her thesis gone completely down the branch. At least, we now know why. Although that’s certainly no comfort to her.”

“Sorry, I’m curious. What exactly happened to her thesis?”

Woodpecker heaved a deep sigh, “Well, at the beginning of Swift’s thesis, we had created a really attractive hypothesis, based on the results and conclusions of a certain paper proposing a specific chromatin structure. Last week, however, that paper’s conclusions turned out to be wrong and, therefore, the respective structures evidently do not exist in living cells. Thus, our whole hypothesis was blown away from one wing flap to the next.”

“But Swift must have obtained new data along the way,” I pointed out.

“Sure. But they’ve never been crystal clear. At the same time, however, they have never been so bad that we clearly would have had to kiss our entire hypothesis goodbye. The data was always ‘in between’ – as is so often the case in research. Thus, Swift and me, we were still optimistic and motivated. Until...”

“...Until this one crucial experiment that falsified everything,” I completed his sentence.

“No; even worse,” he replied. “In fact, I was at a meeting last week and Professor Linnet from the Southern Forests gave a lecture on a related topic. On the same evening, I took the opportunity to ask him for his opinion about our hypothesis. At some point, his eyes suddenly opened owl-wide. And then he told me that the results of the mentioned paper are just plain wrong...”

“Well, anyone could fly by and...,” I started.

“No,” Woodpecker immediately interrupted me again. “It’s completely different. Linnet told me that his group had obtained a couple of results that could not be brought into line with the proposed structure. So, they decided at some point to get to the bottom of the matter, by checking the published structure with their own experiments. Well, their final outcome was that the authors had made a crucial but not an obvious mistake, which caused the whole structural model to turn out completely wrong in the end.”

“Great,” I sarcastically hissed. “But they should have communicated that. They could have spared Swift so much trouble.”

“Right,” Woodpecker agreed. “Of course, Linnet wanted to publish their results immediately. The crux, however, was that they had no positive data on how the structure might have looked instead. They only had negative results. And that’s why they haven’t been able to formally publish it until today.”

“Oh yes, I know. Most of those bloody editors shun any kind of refutation paper,” I ranted.

“Linnet tried to convince editor after editor. The answer being always the same: add a few ‘positive’ results and we’ll send it out for peer review.”

“And that’s what he’s doing now? ‘Adding’ positive results?”

“No way; he also has his pride. He has finally found a minor journal, which will now publish the negative-only paper.”

“Too late for Swift,” I grumbled.

“Yes,” Woodpecker sadly agreed. “But I’m sure hers is not an isolated case. This probably happens even more frequently than one would assume – that PhD students are driven into a dead end by a wrong paper. And it would be so easy to prevent. If we could only publish negative results more smoothly, many Swift-like disasters could certainly be averted in time.”

I heard no more about how Swift finally went on with her thesis. But given this story, it really made me happy to see her flying by so cheerfully this morning...

And with this comforting thought, I think I can finally fall asleep – grumpy, old, non-empathic owl that I am.


Last Changed: 26.06.2017