Can I publish a paper which 1) proposes an idea and 2) proves that the idea doesn't work?

RYN 09/20/2018. 11 answers, 12.302 views
publishability negative-results

I wonder if is it okay for a researcher to suggest a new technique in a field of research and prove that this new suggested technique is a bad suggestion and gives no or negative gain and publish his work as a research on bad idea? (I'm in computer science but my question is a general question about every other field.)

Of course if there is some believe and doubt in the field about the idea, the researcher can prove it is correct or not in a research and it would be totally a productive result. However, if the idea is totally new and he just wants to prove incorrectness for future researchers, is this type of research acceptable in academia?

If not, why?
What is wrong with proving some never-existing idea is not a good idea?

I read this and I want to know what the current academical approach about such a research result is and the reasons for it.

11 Answers

Dmitry Savostyanov 09/20/2018.

What is wrong with proving some never existing idea is not a good idea?

Ideas are easy to produce, but unfortunately only a tiny fraction of them are really useful. If you pick an idea at random, it's likely to be not a good idea, and in most cases it would be relatively easy to check it and see it. So, your referees and your editor may wonder why is it so important to publish this random negative result, particularly in competition with other ideas, which actually lead to improvements and positive results.


Some negative results are indeed worth publishing. For example, when you consider not a random idea, but a mainstream direction, which is believed to be superior all the time, and demonstrate that for a particular class of problems, or in particular setting, it does not work. So, your negative result essentially is an important warning that some popular and blindly trusted method is not yet well understood and should not be used as a silver bullet. Publishing such result can help preventing serious mistakes and hopefully start important discussion, eventually leading to improvement (or ban) of existing methodology.

Even in this case, you will need to do a good job convincing your referees and editor that this negative result is worth publishing, particularly if they are stand behind the idea you prove to be not good. Academia is very much influenced by the modern culture of success. It's much easier to become successful in academia when you talk about your success (however marginal and simple), rather when you produce negative results (however important and difficult).

aaaaaa 09/20/2018.

One case I can imagine for that, looks something like that:

Based on existing research [1,2,3,4,5] we hypothesize seemingly obvious idea that process X should follow path Y. But when we look at this super-obscure papers [6,7] it seems that X only follows Y under very limited circumstances. Hence, generalization that X follows Y is false. Here are more details.

In scientific paper you have to create something new, based on something old. For example, new theory that refutes old theory, or new theory that is based on recent experimental results. In this case you base your theory on existing theories/data, and logic. Then refute it using some other, less known data.

In nutrition circles, for example, there is a wide-held belief that eating too much protein will stress and damage kidneys. That seems about right, since if you put too much pressure on some system (kidneys) it will suffer, correct? Well, the data on that comes mainly from kidney-failure patients, and when you look at data on healthy subjects, there is no harm at all.

E. Rei 09/20/2018.

Other answers don't seem to mention that individual journal policies are important too, and you need to pick the right journal that will publish this kind of research. Obviously you're not going to get into the top journal of your field with a negative result, however, 'PLOS ONE’s broad scope provides a platform to publish primary research, including interdisciplinary and replication studies as well as negative results' (source:

Publishing can take a long time. The main practical question is that given the low impact of publishing negative results, is it worth your time going through all the hoops of getting it published.

Dan Romik 09/20/2018.

Research that contains negative results about an experimental technique that seemingly fails to produce any useful result, or measure what it was trying to measure, can sometimes lead to a scientific revolution.

So yes, if the research addresses interesting questions and is carried out in a competent way, of course it can be published.

John Coleman 09/20/2018.

You invented a new hammer and discovered that it is not good for driving in the intended nail. Are their some nails that it is good for? If so, you could write a paper about that -- and bring in the failure to work with the other problem as a limitation of the new tool. On the other hand, if the new tool is literally good for nothing, why bother?

E.P. 09/20/2018.

If the idea is interesting enough, and the reason why it doesn't work is also nontrivial and interesting, then I would say this is definitely publishable, with bonus points if you can use the combination of idea-plus-no-go-theorem to shed some new light on aspects of the problem which have not been unearthed before.

Basically, I would propose as the key criteria to frame this decision:

  • How likely is it that someone else will come up with that idea in the near- or mid-term future? How likely is it that a literature search will save them a significant chunk of time?
  • To what extent do the techniques you use to prove your no-go theorem add new tools or insights into the theory?

If you think that the answer to either of those questions is positive, and you feel confident that you can convince both editors of reviewers of that answer, then I would say that you should go ahead and try it. (Of course, this involves a huge judgement call, and reasonable people can disagree about both of those answers. If you're in doubt, consult with colleagues before going ahead.)

In fact, one of my papers (this one) arguably falls into that category: there was this existing observation from experiments ("there is an asymmetry in the harmonic emission doublets") and we came up with what we thought would be an excellent way to explain it ("if you analyze from a rotating frame, there are ionization-potential shifts which simplify the ionization dynamics"), but it turned out that in the full analysis the simplification brought in by this idea is exactly cancelled out by some non-intuitive effects.

Of course, that's not the whole story, and there are a bunch of conceptual insights into the configuration and the overall theory that fall out of the analysis, as well as some concrete experimental predictions, so you can't cleanly say that the idea-plus-disproof by itself is what made the paper publishable. But then, I would argue that if the work is nontrivial enough, then it will rarely be the case that you can cleanly separate the idea-plus-disproof from the conceptual insights added by the paper, and it is the latter that can really make it publishable.

kjacks21 09/22/2018.

Dmitry has covered it well, so here is an example of showing a mainstream direction does not work from the field of computer science, and specifically time series data mining. The paper Clustering of time-series subsequences is meaningless: implications for previous and future work (2004) by Eamonn Keogh and Jessica Lin at UC Riverside showed that online and offline clustering of time-series subsequences via a sliding window was completely meaningless and led to incorrect conclusions.

This is a good paper to reference since it motivates the problem with a review of the literature and that many of the papers' conclusions would be invalidated by this negative result, performs a number of experiments to demonstrate the negative result, provides a remedy to the negative result, and concludes.

HEITZ 09/21/2018.

You have to realize that the publishers motivations are not purely academic. I’ve tried to publish null results before (on a topic of high interest) with negative outcome. There are two problems you face.

First, if you publish on a completely new idea (that you prove ill founded), there just isn’t a wide audience. If you seek to prove Relativity wrong, you’ll get attention. But, if this is totally new, the readership won’t care much.

Second, in today’s journals, you need to tell a nice story. The reaction to my own attempts were basically ‘we believe you, but come back when you can end on a positive note’

So proving x != z when no one is studying x or z isn’t interesting, but even if it were, it’s more compelling to outline that x != z, but x ~ y ~ z.

IcedLance 09/21/2018.

I would like to add to previous answers, that if your idea, if realised, is useful, then if you stress what exactly stops your idea from working and what issues (potentially olvable) need to be solved for it to work, then it is a valid and useful paper.

Example: Orbital elevator. Possible? Not currently. Interesting? Yes. Scientific value? Depends on how deep the research is done.

Lio Elbammalf 09/21/2018.

Think of publishing papers as a way of saying "Hey, here is something I've proven, rather than do this yourself you can read my results and see if they help you out in what you're thinking of doing." to help everyone progress.

Now, the question is, is your 'never-existing idea' something other people might try? If not then you aren't telling them anything useful and it isn't worth publishing. Otherwise it is worth it.

Burgmeister 09/24/2018.

There are Journals of Negative Results, e.g.

Thus, generally, publishing "negative" results is possible. Choose a journal appropriate for your field of work and check its "Guidelines for Authors". - Download Hi-Res Songs


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