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The Importance of Publishing Null Results: Editorial Guidelines to Contribute to the Reduction of Publication Bias in Translational Exercise Research

Campbell, Kristin L.1; Moore, Justin B.2; Bartholomew, John B.3

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Translational Journal of the ACSM: Summer 2020 - Volume 5 - Issue 11 - p 1
doi: 10.1249/TJX.0000000000000141
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“Negative results are just what I’m after. They are just as valuable to me as positive results.”

—Thomas A. Edison

It is the moment of truth that every researcher looks forward to with excitement and often trepidation. The data are collected. What do they reveal? We hope to confirm our hypothesis or uncover a novel finding, but null findings are all too often the outcome. Although a null finding is often acutely disappointing for translational studies that aim to test the application of efficacious basic or clinical research into the clinical practice or community settings, the lack of a new finding is an important part of the often painstaking iterative process of scientific discovery. This disappointment is magnified by the difficulty in sharing null findings. It is well documented that studies with positive results are more likely to be published (1,2). Scientists, editors, media, and the public all share some of the blame for this publication bias and of prioritizing new, flashy, and positive results (3–5). However, this focus is at the expense of fundamental principles of the scientific method. Developing and testing a hypothesis against the null hypothesis, which proposes no effect or relationship, is the foundation of the scientific method. Well-designed and conducted studies that demonstrate null results despite sufficient statistical power, i.e., those that fail to reject the null hypothesis, are part of the research process and are fundamental to informing the next research question to be tested.

Exercise and sports science is not immune to the issue of publication bias (6) or calls for this to be addressed (7). With the importance and challenges inherent in translational research, confining studies with null results to the proverbial file drawer does a disservice to the advancement of exercise and sports science. There is important knowledge gained by this work that does not become part of the public record, leading other researchers and funding agencies to expend resources to repeat a study that others have undertaken with limited effect. It also impairs the ability of scoping reviews to effectively synthesize the available evidence, slowing the process of discovery.

The Editorial Board of the Translational Journal of American College of Sports Medicine (TJACSM) will accept well-designed, implemented, and powered translational research with null findings in an effort to combat the issue of publication bias. These papers must be original reports of null results of a priori-tested hypotheses that includes a test of statistical power. We will particularly open to null findings where the protocol paper was originally published in TJACSM.

The effective translation and implementation of basic and clinical research into a real-world setting stands to make important contribution across the board range from public health to the lives of individuals. Ensuring high-quality research is published, regardless of the outcome, stands to forward this important work.


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7. Caldwell AR, al. E. Moving sport and exercise science forward: a call for the adoption of more transparent research practices. SportR. 2018.
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