The Dilemma of Finding Non-Significant Results

I started in the field of health science with an ambition to make the world a healthier, better and maybe even fairer place. I specialised in health research – so I could support the vision of “global health” with my own research. Okay! Some might now call me idealistic. They would argue: “you are a young researcher, you have to get very lucky to have a real impact. Research is a profession like any other!” This makes me wonder. Is it really? Is research like a company that creates and reproduces its position in a market to sell its own products?

Of course such statements are not generalizable.

But then you hear stories from friends and peers, like this one: a young and very eager researcher tests his hypotheses in an experiment and does not find significant results. In the reviewing process this young researcher encounters a reviewer that rejects the paper because the hypothesis could not be supported due to non-significant findings. On top of this the reviewer suggested that the theoretical framework seemed weak, given that the hypotheses were not supported by the results. You may ask yourself now: “is this response ethical? No it is not! However, it’s a process encountered by many researchers. Yet, non-significant findings (according to often arbitrary thresholds) are hard to publish and scare researchers off, more than the Scream horror movie scared me off when I was a teen.

Everyone agrees that it is very important to publish non-significant findings and to be proud of every good study – no matter the outcome of it. Being able to publish non-significant findings and hypotheses that are not supported, even though derived from theory, can prevent waste of research funding and show other researchers that there is no need to write a whole new dissertation on this issue – just because there is no literature on the topic.

Some disciplines, like biomedical research, seem to be more ready to publish non-significant findings in well-conducted studies. How can we bring this movement forward for disciplines, such as communication science or psychology? Ongoing movements towards publishing papers in open access journals, the pre-registration of hypotheses and whole studies (especially relevant for experimental research), and (high-quality) peer reviews need to be pushed forward! This is a shout-out to all of you: Only young researchers like us, can help change the system and shed light on ALL findings – not just the “as expected” ones!

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