From where I sit - Gems in the research scrapheap

September 1, 2011

An English-language journal has recently been launched in Germany that focuses on "failed" research. That is, it publishes material rejected by mainstream journals because it did not yield the desired results or was in some way unsatisfactory. However, the work is still useful in its own way and worth reading.

Two doctoral students from Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz - Thomas-Christian Jagau and Leonie Anna Mueck - founded the Journal of Unsolved Questions, whose acronym, JUnQ, is pronounced like "junk". This is clearly ironic, as the journal's whole point is that what would normally suffer the fate of real junk is often of considerable academic interest.

Although the founders are chemists, the journal is interdisciplinary, covering a wide range of topics, which have so far included a contribution titled "Do Female Bonobos Fake Orgasm?" and one on the Fermionic Shadow Wave Function "in the context of variational quantum Monte Carlo for disordered systems". You can also gain new insights into infant flatulence, and if this does not appeal, there is a short item on the "solvability" of the game of chess. Something for everyone.

The concept is compelling, as a lot of useful work might otherwise never get an audience or forum simply because it does not conform to what are arguably rather rigid criteria. The fact that there is a "null-result" does not mean that the work should be consigned to the waste-paper basket, either literally or electronically. The journal thus intends to overcome "prejudices in research" so that concepts, theories and views that would not make the usual journals can still be aired.

Ms Mueck points out that many attempts at discovery and experiments fail before one finally succeeds. Nonetheless, these failures also potentially expand the frontiers of knowledge. The academic community needs to break the shackles of the traditional journal process and be open both to productive failure and to viable new concepts that are just not publishable in the usual way.

Short essays on "open questions in science" are also given space. So, if you have ever wondered why, despite their being genetically identical, "one bee becomes queen and the other a female worker", you can find an answer in the "Question of the Month".

Furthermore, the journal expressly sets out to combat fraud and dishonesty. Accordingly, there is a powerful piece on the impact and ramifications of the "publish or perish" culture, in which the author considers data manipulation, plagiarism and various other aspects of deceit and falsification.

The journal is refereed, but the criteria are, of course, rather different from the usual. The editors and reviewers are interested in whether something is methodologically, philosophically or otherwise useful or interesting, and not whether it is the academic equivalent of the "well-made play".

Given that there have been only two issues of the journal so far, there is clearly much more in the offing and a long way to go. The initiative has, however, already attracted some plaudits from academic circles, with one association referring to JUnQ as a "university gem".

It is certainly refreshing to have a journal that takes itself seriously enough, but beyond the confines of the usual publication process. The impact on one's CV of a publication in this forum is not yet clear. Nonetheless, the path of true science surely needs to move in genuinely free trajectories.

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