Published online 29 May 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.511

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Failure is certainly an option

Conservation scientists plead for better reporting of negative results.

Stack of journalsRestoration Ecology is to accept papers reporting negative results.Alamy

In a move that parallels similar complaints in medicine and the physical sciences, a group of researchers is calling for their colleagues working in conservation and ecology to report failure.

Failure to publish negative results, they say, could lead to bigger failures in future conservation projects.

"The subject of what constitutes 'success' in restoration has been actively debated over the last few years, but it is only recently that a few people have discussed the merit of examining 'failure' as well," says Richard Hobbs, a plant biologist at the University of Western Australia, Crawley.

He says that convincing scientists to offer negative results up for publication in the first place, together with subsequent problems in getting them through peer review, mean 'failures' are seldom reported. In addition, managers in conservation fields are often unwilling to admit that their efforts have not succeeded.

Hobbs is also editor-in-chief of the journal Restoration Ecology. The journal announced earlier this year that it would host a special section for these currently lacking reports1.

"We have had a lot of interest," he says. "We immediately had people contacting us about their experiences with either experiments or actual restoration projects that did not have the expected outcomes."

The first manuscripts for the new section are now going through the review process.

Publish and be praised

Complaints about lack of publication of supposed failures have also been seen in medicine, where critics have alleged that some drug companies try to suppress publication of results that do not reflect favourably on their products.

“We need to know the full picture.”

Andrew Pullin
University of Wales in Bangor

Andrew Pullin, professor of evidence-based conservation at the University of Wales in Bangor, UK, says conservationists are no different from doctors in needing to see all the evidence, not just the positive bits.

"We need to know the full picture," he says. "If results are hidden and lost because they don't seem to be very interesting, then we're really in trouble."

Pullin says the problem of publication bias towards positive results is highlighted by a growing number of meta-analyses, which combine the results of several studies. "I think there's more and more realization that this is an issue," he says.

Hobbs's move has also triggered a similar plea in a closely related field, with conservation ecologist Andrew Knight calling for his fellow scientists to document their failures in the same way, in a letter in the latest edition of Conservation Biology2.

"The lack of publication is a massive problem in conservation," says Knight, a senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. "Firstly, it reflects the fact that the vast majority of researchers are focused on publishing papers as opposed to 'doing' conservation. Secondly, as a result of the first point, we have bred several generations of conservation biologists who know absolutely nothing about implementing action."

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Not publishing failures, he told Nature News, could result in a 'negative feedback loop', with an increasing disconnect between academic researchers and conservation practitioners, with the latter at risk of seeing "nothing useful coming out of research, which makes future collaboration even more difficult".

Joy Zedler, a professor of botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agrees that "it really is hard to publish those negative results".

She prefers not to use the word 'failures' though, and encouraged Hobbs to choose a different name for his section. As a consequence, the new section in Restoration Ecology is called 'Set-backs and Surprises'.

"It's very subjective," she explains. "What I might call a failure might be someone else's success." 

  • References

    1. Hobbs, R. Rest. Ecol. 17, 1–3 (2009). | Article |
    2. Knight, A. T. Cons. Biol. 23, 517 (2009). | Article |

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  • #60614

    The title of this thread is a type of aggressive philosophy that has been popular here in the U.S. and maybe across the globe for many years. From my point of view at 63 years of age and almost 1/2 of that time spent in business for myself (31 years) the statement above, (for me at least) almost has the connotation of We can not fail! MadelineI @weebly.com

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