A study published in JAMA Oncology has revealed that ‘positive’ cancer clinical trial results have a much higher scientific impact than ‘negative’ results.

A total of 94 patient studies were looked at, containing data from 46,424 trial participants. Out of these, only 28% of trials showed positive results. However, these trials were far more likely to be published in high impact journals than negative trials. They were also referenced by other articles more often. This means that, overall, “the scientific impact of the primary articles from positive phase 3 randomized cancer clinical trials was twice as great as for negative trials”.

Trials were considered ‘positive’ if they had results in favour of a new experimental treatment, and considered ‘negative’ if the results favoured standard treatment, or showed little difference between the two. Although positive results are clearly interesting, negative trial results are just as important, not least to the doctors and researchers who make decisions about which treatments work best. The authors of the study agree, saying:

“negative trial results reduce uncertainty about which treatments should direct guideline-based care. Thus, their publication serves a vital scientific and societal interest”.

“It is also essential to publish negative trial results given the costliness of trials; the high probability that the clinical experiment is unlikely to be repeated (or, conversely, to reduce the risk that a similar trial is repeated due to lack of knowledge of a negative trial’s results); and importantly, in fulfilment of the obligation to the trial participants who volunteered to participate”.

An editorial was also published in JAMA Oncology: Negative Studies in Cancer Research – Why the Negativity?