Data and writing– unpublished or unpublishable?

17 Jun

Scientists, writers and even science writers share a common plight: there’s always a subset of their work that lies fallow, tucked in a notebook, lingering on a hard drive. The question remains whether that work should remain on a dusty shelf, or whether it actually belongs among “the published.”

When I was in graduate school, I worked with a graduate student from Korea, who generated gobs of data, much of it that wasn’t leading to clear conclusions. He threatened to start his own scientific journal, The Journal of Unpublishable Data. We all chuckled and commiserated.

I believe in generating quality work, whether now as a writer, or in my past as a scientist. We all want oohs and aahs rather than questions and nit-picking. But here’s the flip side: talking about our struggles and our foibles often helps us get to the elusive goal that we’re trying to reach. If you put too much out there, you risk being criticized or scooped. Hold too much in, and you might be missing the opportunity to grow.

As a scientist, I remember particularly sticky situations in my graduate work where others had done similar chemistry, and as it turned out, I spent months trying to do something that someone else out there probably could have told me wasn’t possible. But to the victor go the spoils, failed experiments typically lie secret in notebooks somewhere unless you somehow run into the person who attempted it and who can say, sagely, “Nope, that’s never going to work. And this is why.”

A couple of weeks ago, I covered a meeting that included a first for me, a senior researcher who gave a keynote talk about a herculean research effort in search of a drug target. It was an extremely difficult problem, but the net result? They failed, but they learned a lot. I wish more published science talked about the lessons learned in those types of situations. I think all sciences could benefit from a rethink of what’s considered “publishable.” One of the biggest problems with medical evidence right now is the fact that the results of failed clinical trials often never see the light of day. Such results may not grab headlines, but they’re often an important part of the story, particularly if a drug or device turns out to have unexpected side effects or doesn’t fulfill its promise.

But I’ve digressed from the parallel to writing. I’ve written about blogging as a way for me to workshop my writing. I have a variety of article ideas that have never landed a home, essays that didn’t sell. Not all writing, ideas, and scientific results should see the light of day. We all have chaff that needs to go out with the garbage, or that needs to lie fallow until we have greater context for what it means. With so much information spinning by us, I’m still figuring out how to balance my competing urges as a writer. Should I let an idea simmer so that the flavors continue to meld and combine? Or should I just get it out there and get feedback on it?


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