Friday, January 22, 2010

What a day...

Today I have been through all the emotions: highs, lows, hunger, and fatigue. After conducting a year’s worth of research, I have spent the past few weeks writing a draft of a report to submit to a scientific journal. My co-authors and I met today to discuss my draft, but instead, I dropped a bombshell. I’ve been deliberating for about a week about what I was about to say, and just before the words leapt from my mouth, my heart first nearly leapt from my chest. I said, “We need to trash everything. We need to start all over again.”

It felt like the pain of having to say that to my colleagues was reflected by the looks on their faces in response. In retrospect, maybe I should have started the conversation with the justification for that statement, rather than hitting them first and then explaining why. So, let’s wind back and I’ll explain my thought process.

I’m determined to get published in a high impact scientific journal as soon as possible, and the research I’ve been working on could be the one that hits the mark. When writing the draft of the report, I had to get into the mindset of “this really is the best research ever”, to ensure that I conveyed the importance of our findings in the writing. And it worked - I drafted a very simple, convincing story based on a lot of previous literature, and I managed to emphasise the importance of what we were adding with our new experiments.

Unfortunately, regardless of any self-ego-boosting, I couldn’t convince myself that the way in which we conducted the experiment was optimal. In fact, some of our more interesting results were found by accident - after the first, main experiment, we realised that we lacked certain controls. We quickly designed a follow-up control experiment and collected some data. When we were looking at the new data, we realised that the control experiment didn’t really control for anything, but we found a new effect that hasn’t been reported by anyone else! Crazy!

But what would have happened if we included the controls from the beginning? Would the results be the same, or would they be completely boring? And this is the hurdle I just couldn’t climb over. If we did get this research published in a high-impact journal, other research groups would try to replicate our results, and if THEY employed controls from the beginning and didn’t find an effect, then we would be in a much worse-off place than when we started.

After a quick estimation, re-testing will take approximately 80 hours in total plus all the data analysis, and, after all that, the amazing effect we found might disappear. But now I have convinced myself this is completely necessary: I don’t want to be known for having reported something that doesn’t exist, and if the effect survives the re-testing, we know for sure we are onto something amazing.

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  1. A quick note - I have intentionally been vague about the research because it really is quite new, and I don't want others to steal the simple idea.

  2. Did your colleagues agree with your assessment of the situation?

  3. Fortunately, yes! Although it took them a short whie to get over the shock of my suggestion.