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When your research hands you lemons

Priya Narasimhan
Priya Narasimhan
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When your research hands you lemons

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Priya Narasimhan
Priya Narasimhan

When you try something in research and it doesn’t work out, when you hit a research dead-end, tell the world. Shout it out from the rooftops.

Write the paper you wish you had read before you went down the wrong path.

Get a publication out of your research dead-end.

Write about the negative result. Write about the wrong path you took. Not for yourself alone, but because it will help others and it will help the research community advance.

Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t. — Thomas Edison

Photo by Lauren Mancke on Unsplash
  1. Knowing what didn’t work is often more priceless than what did. It represents months, years, weeks of chasing a wrong hypothesis, a wrong experiment, a wrong set of assumptions, a wrong approach. Who cares? Only you were brave enough to go down that path, stick with it, and see it through. By publishing your journey, including the “it just didn’t work, after all,” part, you are giving others a cautionary path not to tread. And that is a service to the research community and to our collective understanding.
  2. A negative research result is still a research result. Research is full of impossibility theorems, theorems that it say it’s impossible to do something. Conferences celebrate experiences through practical experience reports.
  3. The right path is more obvious after a failure. The beauty of failing is that the path to success is often clearer. In science and engineering, the path to the right way is often through the wrong way. In fact, through many wrong ways. Edison once said, “I have not failed 10,000 times — I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

It is an act of courage to talk about the mistakes you’ve made, but it is liberating. It eliminates fear because you’ve already faced fear and you know what it looks like. The worst has already happened. You took the wrong path. You failed. Your research idea didn’t work out. Big deal.

The fact that your research didn’t work out is also a research result.

It might help another researcher avoid the path you went down. Research is more than just the stuff that works; it’s also the stuff that doesn’t work. The “don’t take this approach because it won’t work even if it looks like it would” paper is not about your resilience or your overcoming failure. No, it’s about the fact that, at its core, the negative research-result can be useful, beneficial, eye-opening, informative, and might lead to other avenues of research. By publishing your negative research-result, you’re advancing the collectively understanding of the field.

And, isn’t that what publications are for?