We need a Voluntary Sector Journal of Negative Results

Posted on 26th June 2015 by

The scientific community publishes what does not work and what did not work as expected,  as well as what did work. This simple and sensible idea allows those working in similar fields to avoid the pitfalls experienced by others. We need to adopt this idea in the voluntary sector.

My sister, a scientist, referred to the Journal of Negative Results once, and the idea has been coming back to me again and again recently. A quick Google search shows that there are at least three peer reviewed journals that provide an online, open access, peer-reviewed platform for publication and discussion of unexpected, controversial, negative results or those that don’t meet thresholds for being considered significant.

Too often we are asked, or feel pushed, to publish information about our huge successes, our amazing innovations and our significant impacts. But what about the times when things don’t work? Or they don’t work in the way you thought they would? Or things carried on much as before, but that in itself is a great outcome, albeit not a headline-grabbing one? Or where the work we’re doing is holding back a tide of regression in social conditions but it looks like we’re not achieving anything?

Funders in particular, especially government funders, are over-focused on innovation as they desperately seek a magic solution to the looming crises in health, social care, welfare and beyond.

A caveat on the scientific analogy – not everyone published negative results, and this is sometime seen as a risky manoeuvre. But, for my money, the fact that one of the leading journals of this kind is based out of Harvard University gives it great credibility as a concept.

A recent series on the BBC called How We Got To Now shows how the inventions that changed our lives, our societies and our economies were not usually one light bulb moment of inspiration, but more often many years of patient, incremental development, often by a number of actors in different fields.

For me, social change and impact is much the same. We need to be able to share our knowledge of what didn’t work without fearing criticism about failing, about wasting money and about not doing well enough. Of course we need to build on what has gone before, develop our practice and be accountable for all the funds we use, but let’s not let those things stifle our work.

A simple hashtag added to posts, publications or discussion about what has not worked  would be hugely helpful in shaping what we try next. Let’s adopt #vcsnegativeresults and see what happens!

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