IMAGINE your excitement as a budding young researcher taking on your first piece of research as part of an undergraduate summer studentship. The project is to characterise a gene that makes a type of medically important bacteria resistant to a key group of antibiotics—the tetracyclines. The gene in question is described in a peer-reviewed specialist journal, but no-one is quite sure how the gene works. So why are we interested? If we’re to understand and address the problem of antibiotic resistance, one of the many things we need to do is understand their mechanisms of resistance. This gene appears very different from any other gene that performs a similar function, so it has been classed into its own ‘family’ of resistance determinant, which appears in reviews and textbooks. It has also been screened for, and found, in a notable ‘superbug’, VRSA (the vancomycin resistant big brother of MRSA). The presence of this gene may also have influenced whether or not a patient was given tetracycline.
The only problem is, the gene in question is not an antibiotic resistance gene, but you won’t know this until you have spent the summer working on it. Indeed, it won’t be until the project is inherited as a pet project by a postdoc that we’ll know this. The fact is, the gene had already been recognised for what it really was over a decade earlier—not that this was ever reported. The person who immediately dismissed the gene’s published function was in fact the one time PhD supervisor of the postdoc who picked up the project, and a world expert on the family that our mystery the gene really belongs to, but I’ll come back to that.
My post last week, ‘On publishing negative results…‘, briefly described the issue of positive publication bias in scientific and medical literature, and was a pre-amble to the story of my own experience publishing negative results. So let me now tell you about how I tried, and succeeded, at getting ostensibly negative results published.