(WASHINGTON POST) Carolyn Johnson — Positive results are exciting. We have a natural curiosity about the powerful new cholesterol-lowering drug or fresh research showing spicy food might stave off diseases of aging. But for years it’s been increasingly apparent that this interest in positive results is skewing what we know about science, with the ho-hum results that show a drug didn’t really work or an experiment failed falling through the cracks.
A study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that measures currently afoot in nearly every area of science to increase the transparency requirements for research will mean we can expect to see more of these seemingly dull results in the future — and that’s a good thing. Far from boring, those trials that find a drug doesn’t do what we hoped can be equally as important — or even more so — than the ones that do.
Take the Women’s Health Initiative, a giant, long-term study launched in 1991 that tested, among other things, the effects of hormone therapy in women who had gone through menopause. For decades, hormone replacement had been seen as a kind of fountain of youth by women and doctors. But the careful study found that estrogen alone increased risk of stroke. Estrogen combined with another hormone increased risk of breast cancer. It wasn’t a positive result, but it changed medical practice, and a recent analysis predicts that the information on combined hormone therapy saved 126,000 women from dying of breast cancer between 2003 and 2012.
“If there’s anything disappointing about this, it’s that greater transparency might result in discovering that there are fewer significant benefits from some interventions than we had thought,” said Robert Kaplan, chief science officer of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. “It is, in my opinion, a significant improvement in science.”