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It is an expectation that the PhD would make an original contribution and/or advance knowledge in a given field. I understand this is a universal assumption for this level of study across all universities.

One of my friend's research experiment has not produced a single positive result. This was a science experiment, so it is easy to quantify whether the result is positive or negative.

[It is a bit different in the social sciences, where the outcome (result) would be that either the null hypothesis is supported or rejected (with some analysis on the effect size to make the analysis meaningful in a given context). In other words, the data analysis either supports or does not support the proposition that is being investigated.]

My question is: What should a student do if none of the research outcomes or results are positive?

Simply writing that nothing new was found does not add or advance knowledge other than to just confirm the status quo (which I guess is a form of contribution, but there has to be more than this at this level of research!).

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Related: Why don't people publish failures? – eykanal Jan 24 '13 at 1:01
I'm a PhD student myself and many of my experiments do not show an effect under certain conditions. This doesn't make the work less important (but certainly less "fancy"), as it shows that many people expect is simply not happening. My PhD is in biology, though, so it might be a bit different. – Eekhoorn Jan 24 '13 at 14:22
up vote 16 down vote accepted

Your friend might not want to hear this, but there's nothing you can do except for start over - with a different experiment. Research fails - and should ! If there isn't a risk of failure, you're not out on the cutting edge doing research.

But in most failures, there's a grain of something to build on ("from the ashes of disaster come the roses of success"). Maybe the student is too demoralized right now to see it, but almost always there's some clue in the failure that leads to a different research question worth asking.

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I think it is very important to know what exactly failed. If, for example, the experiment failed due to methodological problems, then starting over at least partially might be needed. If everything worked fine, but no findings were discovered, then starting over might not be necessary. No findings using good science is still good science. – Behacad Jul 8 '14 at 18:07

I think there is a case to be done to report negative results, since it gives at least a blueprint of what does not work.

However, as Suresh mentions, usually a PhD is measure on its contribution to expand knowledge. If your friend is already 5 years into his PhD however, I think there is some adviser's fault, since he should have had some kind of insight that this thing was not working and a different course might have been wiser.

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More importantly, publishing negative results protects science from publication bias. – Roy Tinker Oct 29 '13 at 22:07
Publishing null results does expand the frontier of knowledge. It's not sexy, but it really is something that wasn't known before. – dmckee Jul 8 '14 at 21:58
This ^, null results do expand knowledge. Academia really needs to change the positive results are the only results culture. – daaxix Feb 26 at 9:03

Technically, you have nothing to face failure except doing another experiment as @Suresh said, Consulting supervisor and other acknowledgeable people and carefully looking again to the problem formulation and to your solving method. Here the goal is to identify the error.

More importantly, at least to me, is the non-technical reaction for such failures. I reward myself by relaxing, playing more with the kids, sleeping early; playing some games or sometimes watching movie. I try my best to forget the problem for one or two days..

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A defensible null result (that is being able to definitively say that something isn't there as opposed to not being able to say anything either way) is a result and does advance the frontier of knowledge.

This should be obvious.

If that kind of thing can't be published in your friend's discipline then there is something seriously wrong with the culture of that discipline.

To be sure, null results are generally not sexy and can't expect to get into a first rank journal unless there was a widespread expectation that this was a shoo-in, but it is still real science.

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Two major thoughts:

  1. A negative finding is still a finding. Publishing failures is a harder road to publication, but still a valuable contribution to science as a whole.
  2. While this might be a little late for your friend, I always advise looking for "fail-safe" research questions for dissertations or other research projects where a student's success depends on a single finding. What I mean by fail-safe is that research questions should be chosen where "Yes" or "No" are both interesting and publishable answers.
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