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The Upside of Failure

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 31, 2009 6:47 PM


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As reported in Nature, two leading ecologists are calling on their colleagues to publish negative study results. Richard Hobbs, a plant biologist and the editor-in-chief of the journal Restoration Ecology, explained to Nature:

The subject of what constitutes 'success' in restoration has been actively debated over the last few years, but it is only recently that a few people have discussed the merit of examining 'failure' as well.

To that end, Hobbs has just added a new section in Restoration Ecology called "Set-backs and Surprises." As discussed in the Nature article, a similar plea to shine a light on failures was made by ecologist Andrew Knight, in a recent letter to the journal Conservation Biology:

The lack of publication is a massive problem in conservation. Firstly, it reflects the fact that the vast majority of researchers are focused on publishing papers as opposed to 'doing' conservation. Secondly, as a result of the first point, we have bred several generations of conservation biologists who know absolutely nothing about implementing action.

That can't be good. On a practical level, though, how would highlighting research failures help make better conservation policy in, in say, the halls of Congress, or in federal agencies? David Bruggeman at Prometheus suggests that scientists should not worry:

While policymakers are often focused more on the successes than what didn't work, they do respond to lessons learned.

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