Balancing Publication Bias:

It is often observed that scientific publications suffer from a "publication bias" against the publication of studies that generate negative results. A study purporting to show a link between a given chemical and given health problem is more likely to be published than a study that finds no correlation. Similarly, a study purporting to show that a given drug helps a given medical condition is more likely to be published than a study that finds the drug is no more effective than a placebo. The result, some claim, is a subtle bias in the scientific literature. But this may start to change.

In today's WSJ, Sharon Begley reports (link for subscribers) on the rise of publications that specialize in publishing studies with "negative" findings.

guardians of scientific probity are fighting back. A handful of journals that publish only negative results are gaining traction, and new ones are on the drawing boards.

"You hear stories about negative studies getting stuck in a file drawer, but rigorous analyses also support the suspicion that journals are biased in favor of positive studies," says David Lehrer of the University of Helsinki, who is spearheading the new Journal of Spurious Correlations.

"Positive" means those showing that some intervention had an effect, that some gene is linked to a disease -- or, more broadly, that one thing is connected to another in a way that can't be explained by random chance. A 1999 analysis found that the percentage of positive studies in some fields routinely tops 90%. That is statistically implausible, suggesting that negative results are being deep-sixed. As a result, "what we read in the journals may bear only the slightest resemblance" to reality, concluded Lee Sigelman of George Washington University. . . .

. . . studies that dispute connections between a gene and a disease are among the most important negative results in biomedicine. They undercut the simplistic idea that genes inevitably cause some condition, and show instead that how a gene acts depends on the so-called genetic background -- all of your DNA -- which affects how individual genes are activated and quieted. But you seldom see such negative results in top journals.

Hence, Dr. Olsen's journal, which is full of studies disputing reported links between gene variations and disease. The Sod1 gene and inherited forms of Lou Gehrig's disease? Probably not. MTHFR and the age at which Huntington disease strikes? Uh-uh. PINK-1 and late-onset Parkinson's disease? No.

Hopefully, each of these reports kept researchers, including those at drug companies, from wasting time looking for ways to repair the consequences of the supposed genetic association. But it isn't clear that any would have been published without the new journal.