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How to turn ‘negative’ research into success

A negative research result may seem bad but, if shared, it could boost scientific knowledge.

That is the ethos behind the data-sharing website Figshare, which archives negative research results, previously unpublished figures, preliminary results, videos and more.

Mark Hahnel, creator of the site and a PhD student in stem-cell biology at Imperial College London, says he came up with the idea while working on his dissertation. “I got a bit frustrated since I’ve done nearly four years of experiments and have produced a lot of data,” he told Research Fortnight. “A lot of it is good data but it’s never going to be seen outside my lab group.”

Hahnel says he thinks researchers often duplicate experiments unknowingly—wasting both time and money. Through his site he aims to make it possible for researchers to use existing data that fits their research projects or form collaborations with groups that conduct similar work.

During the course of his PhD, he often looked for a place to publish his own unused data, but found no simple-to-use archive devoted to research.

The main challenge when creating the site, says Hahnel, was therefore to make it “stupidly simple” and to develop incentives for using it.

A problem, he says, is that researchers aren’t always keen to share negative results since they are often unlikely to get published in academic journals. But another way to look at it, he says, is that the site actually offers recognition to researchers that have worked hard on a project but not managed to get their research published.

“The thing is that if you work really hard…but you just don’t get enough serendipitous moments or massive publications—then you can be the hardest working scientist in the world and not get the recognition you deserve,” he says.

“It’s just like with open access—people need to see the benefit,” he says. “It kind of exponentially grew as soon as there was an impact factor.”

Ross Mounce, a PhD student in biology at the University of Bath, says he’s already uploaded some data on the site and is planning to use it more in the future. The best thing about it, he says, is that it’s free and the uploads are easy and quick to do—unlike many other archives.

“There is a benefit for [researchers] since there is potential to get an extra citation and science is all about citations,” he says. “If anything, the funding bodies should incentivise this to happen.”

The site also automatically generates citations for the uploaded figures, which will link to the specified dataset even if the URL changes.