Issues of The Biochemist are a bit like buses now – first none arrives and then a multitude, which I’ve been steadily working through in lockdown time. I have been particularly interested in the June issue Research Culture and cannot help comparing today’s research scene with that of the early 1960s when I was a PhD student in Birmingham (Editor’s note: If you haven’t see the June 2020 issue of the magazine, the content is available online free here

One thing that has caught my eye in this and other issues is frequent reference to ‘negative results’. I think there might be some merit in abandoning this term. To my mind, there is no such thing as ‘negative results’. Results are results and should be telling us something. Perhaps people might mean ‘unexpected results’, in which case one should ask: did I do the experiments carefully and competently? If the answer is ‘yes’ then the original hypothesis on which the work was based needs to be modified or scrapped and replaced by something better.

In the mid-1960s, I was fortunate to do post-doctoral research in the laboratory of a brilliant Nobel Prize-winning lipid biochemist in the USA. He was a kind man and took the trouble to discuss the project he had chosen for me. It was to map out the pathway for the biosynthesis of a tetra-unsaturated 16-carbon chain length fatty acid in a green alga. We both agreed at the outset that the presence in the algal cells of the mono-, di- and tri-unsaturated fatty acids in the same series suggested that the tetra-unsaturated acid was the end-product of a sequential series of desaturations. This was our starting hypothesis. I then synthesized the tritium-labelled mono-unsaturated precursor, fed it to my algae and expected to find labelled di-, tri and tetra-unsaturated acids, but this was not so. All the products were in a related series of 18-carbon acids, none (other than the ‘precursor’) in the 16-carbon unsaturated acids. The experiment was repeated many times, all with the same result. The professor actually apologized to me for giving me an unexpectedly difficult problem that yielded ‘negative results’ and gave me another project. I was shocked at his reaction and spent much time pondering over a plausible (to me!) alternative hypothesis. When I took this to him for discussion, he dismissed it out of hand and that was the end of the conversation.

Several years later, back in the UK, I was able to test my alternative hypothesis and showed it to fit the findings. Very shortly, the professor’s team also confirmed it. After this saga, perhaps you can understand why I have been sceptical of the concept of ‘negative results’.

One final thought. I think scientists would be grateful if more publishers were willing to publish results that are ‘unexpected’ or as some will continue to call them ‘negative’, provided of course that reviewers were satisfied that the work had been done, and presented, carefully and competently.