Failure. It’s a dirty word. We’ve been having lots of discussions about openness in the process around building Droplet. (We’ve decided on Open Droplet actually as the next iteration of the name!) It’s something I feel really resonates with me, and I am excited about the exploration of this space. I particularly am interested in the idea of exploring failing in public, as a companion to the severe problem pervading research of not reporting negative results.
I was at a conference as a PhD student a few years ago, presenting some of my research into the behaviour of transition metal pollutants and carbonate minerals. As a preamble to some positive results, I reported some negative results. During the discussion after my talks, a professor from another university raised his hand and informed me: “We attempted the same thing a few years ago, and we couldn’t find anything either.” Of course, had there been a culture of publishing negative as well as positive results, instead of spending 3 months on reproducing those negative results, I could have used the time to research something that wasn’t already known. (As an aside, I look forward to the day when we have a way to search through all peer reviewed literature on a topic regardless of language). There are some journals dedicated specifically to negative results, such as the Journal of Negative Results, and the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine. Though I can’t help but feel that siloing the results into special journals still makes them seem either an afterthought or somehow undesirable.
Of course, it’s difficult to admit failure, and there is always the fear that the judgement will be on yourself rather than limited to the work. A few years ago Fail Faire popped up, creating an open space where people could discuss failure. After a couple of years, the movement seems to have petered out – or failed to continue, as it were. It’d be nice to know why. The rhetoric around failure has changed a little, but are we still unable to accept admissions of failure? Even if we “fail fast, fail often”, is it still uncomfortable to fail openly?
This actually makes me wonder… how will our approach to failure change as our digital legacy continues. You look at, say the recent Justin Bieber racism debacle – he was recorded as a youngster repeating a terrible racist joke, and it came back to bite him in the backside years later. I’m not commenting on the content of this – the joke and the cultural repercussions are terrible. It does exemplify the point, however, that we each have a digital legacy that we cannot easily escape. And as we can increasingly see each others’ failures, has that perhaps (and sadly) made us less forgiving and more judgemental? If so, what would facilitate a change in this towards forgiveness and understanding rather than ridicule and outrage?