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How to respond to negative, unexpected data and results

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How to respond to negative, unexpected data and results

It’s every researcher’s worst nightmare: Your data isn’t yielding the results you had expected, or your data is showing ‘negative’ results that completely negates your research aims and contradicts your hypotheses.

You might feel like your entire research project is falling apart and that you cannot move forward. However, rest assured that there are always ways to deal with unexpected data that will not only salvage your research, but also make important contributions to your field.

Results are neither ‘negative’ nor ‘positive’

First of all, try not to think of data and results as being either ‘negative’ or positive’. In research, results can always still be useful in some way by telling you something important or interesting about either your data set, methods or methodology.

If a ‘negative’ result means that your data disproves your hypothesis or does not answer your research questions in the way you expected, this does not necessarily mean that the results must be discarded or rendered useless. It is still possible to write up and publish this research, and to extract important information from the results you have obtained.

After all, ‘negative’ or unexpected results are still results – trace your research backwards and try to examine what it is that caused this result. You might find something very interesting and insightful in the methods you used. Or you might discover that the results tell you something novel, even groundbreaking, about that particular data set or the issue you are investigating.

Being able to clearly demonstrate and explain how and why a method does not work, or why a particular method produces undesirable outcomes, is itself a valuable contribution to the field. For example, in research around vaccines or medical treatments, having something not work out is not considered failure. Instead, it can help researchers eliminate what is not effective, narrow down the scope of investigation, and allow them to rule out certain methods so they can proceed to work with others.

Remember that throughout the history of scientific research, unexpected anomalies in results have often brought up surprising new discoveries or prompted scientists to investigate other novel issues. In fact, sometimes the discoveries are the anomalies or accidental ‘mistakes’ from another research project.

Talk it out

It is not uncommon for PhD students to panic when they get unexpected results. They might then try to start their project from scratch or give up altogether. However, before you resort to any extreme measures, it is really important that you speak to your supervisor and/or colleagues from your research project or department.

Your supervisor should be able to offer you more focused advice about what you can do to effectively address the specific issues arising with your data. You can talk to them about what you did during your data collection (in either labwork or fieldwork) and they can help you untangle where things may have gone wrong, how to recollect more data if necessary (and if you have time), and what else you can do at this stage to move forward with the results that you have.

Getting different perspectives and troubleshooting your process with others might also reveal that the issues you are facing with your data are not as disastrous as you think. When you talk to others, they can give you new ideas for how you can work with the data you currently have or offer suggestions for what else you can do in your situation.

It is important not to try to solve everything on your own. Remember that you have the support of your supervisors and the research community in your department and university. Don’t fear being judged for having problems with your data. All researchers understand that it is common for difficulties and issues to arise with research and data, and they are more than likely to have good advice and reassurance to help you.

Prove your mettle

Although it may not seem like it at the time, having to deal with difficult, unexpected results is an excellent opportunity for you to prove your strengths and resourcefulness as a researcher.

As you address diverse and unexpected issues arising in your research, you demonstrate your knowledge of the field and discipline. You show that you understand a range of existing theory, methodology and analytical tools, and showcase your ability to employ and extract from previous work to manage your own research – whatever the challenges. By doing this, you show how resourceful, adaptable and versatile you are as a researcher.

You would also be exercising clear researcher reflexivity, by presenting conscientious awareness of how your decisions and actions affect your data, your analysis and the overall directions of your research. You will be able to show that you have a thorough understanding of what you have done, how you have done it, and what you could have done differently.

These are all excellent and highly desirable traits of an effective researcher, and being able to exercise and prove these qualities is often more important than the findings themselves. Remember that you are being assessed not just on the research you produce, but also in your abilities to do rigorous, thoughtful research. So, take the focus off the ‘negative’ results at hand got and consider how you will effectively respond to and adapt your research instead.

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