When research doesn’t go to plan – be the chameleon

Dr Gareth Morris
2017 ERUK Explore Pilot Study Researcher
Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland

Early-stage research in the lab is often about testing new ideas – but exploration comes with some risks too. In this Research Blog, Dr Gareth Morris shares an example of how his research with Professor Stephanie Schorge took a new direction after some disappointing results. Here, Gareth argues that what some people see as ‘failures’ are actually an essential part of science.

Let’s talk about chameleons.

The chameleon is Mother Nature’s great adaptor, with its ability to change colour in response to its surroundings and circumstances. Let’s suppose that our friend the chameleon lives on a grey rock. It can colour itself grey to blend in. But what if, one day, the chameleon wakes up to find that its rock has been painted brown. No problem! It will just change its colour and adapt.

You are probably now asking yourself why a brain scientist is rambling on about chameleons on a research blog. It’s a fair question. The chameleon story also nicely sums up how we should deal with ‘failed’ and unforeseen results in scientific research. Many people see results that don’t show the expected changes as failure. I prefer to think of them as ‘unexpected’.

It can be one of the most frustrating things in science. You come up with a shiny new hypothesis, plan a brilliant experiment, painstakingly perform your investigations for weeks, months – maybe even years – and pour countless hours into data analysis. And then BOOM – negative data (research speak for failed results). In a career where success is traditionally centred around publishing exciting and new results, this can be hard to deal with – especially at the early stages.

Like every scientist, I have many stories that follow the same narrative. In 2017, Professor Stephanie Schorge and I were awarded a Explore Pilot Study from Epilepsy Research UK. We had a great idea about why seizures come from certain parts of the brain, and we hoped that this would lead us towards new treatment targets for epilepsy. Fast-forward one year and, well, our predictions were not true.

But, this is not a failure.

It is all well and good to know what experiments and ideas DO work, but we can’t hope to develop a complete scientific reality without also understanding those which don’t.

We knew there were other hypotheses that might explain why some parts of the brain are more prone to seizures. So what if the one we started with didn’t work? We could still integrate the new information that we found, and adapt our next experiment. Just like a chameleon, we can change to integrate our new information and adapt accordingly.

With this in mind, I suggest that we must change how we view and deal with this kind of ‘negative’ results.

Firstly, scientists should not be hard on themselves when negative data is generated and see this as a failure. Provided the experiments were performed well, the insights gained are still incredibly valuable to the progress of research. After all, we can control (to an extent) the quality of the experiment, but we cannot control the outcome and whether it follows what we expected.

Secondly, I think there must be methods by which scientists can publish their negative findings to the research community and gain appropriate credit. Some scientific journals will publish articles based around negative data, but this still feels like a frustratingly rare entity – negative data are not ‘exciting’. Not only does this waste the time of scientists who repeat existing negative experiments, but it may lead to more serious problems.

The high-pressure nature of the academic career path combined with our definitions of successcan put a strain on the mental health of academics who feel like they are failing when they are not. It can push others towards questionable research practices, falsifying data and scientific misconduct.

Wouldn’t we learn more from reliable and trustworthy negative results, than polished high-impact papers which hide the ‘boring’ findings they don’t want you to see? Even the most ground-breaking studies will not have gone perfectly; both scientists and journals must be open to publishing the full story – warts and all.

Our ERUK Pilot was a ‘failure’. But, when we suddenly found ourselves on a different colour rock, we took in the new information and began to change our colours and formulate the next idea, using our learnings from the pilot study.

-Dr Gareth Morris

You can read Dr Gareth Morris and Prof Stephanie Schorge’s final report for their ERUK Explore Pilot Study in our 2020 edition of Focus – click here to view our newsletter online.

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