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Aussie research results go missing

A disturbingly high number of publicly-funded medical trials never publish results, representing millions of wasted research dollars, say Queensland researchers.

Their study of 77 randomised trials funded by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council found that 28% of them had no published results within eight years of receiving funding.

That alone represents nearly $30 million of wasted money, and is no doubt the tip of an iceberg of wasted research funds in the Australian funding system, say the study authors from the Queensland University of Technology.

For published studies, the median time it took for the main results to be published was 7.1 years after funding, even though the funding only supports up to five years of research.

Even protocol papers, which are supposed to come out soon after a project is greenlighted, were hard to come by, appearing at a median of 6.4 years after funding.

Related: Is the NHMRC funding process fair?

In a linked comment, senior author Professor Adrian Barnett (PhD) says researchers avoid publishing results for several reasons. One common reason is when the results are negative, as these are harder to publish, and have less cachet.

But regardless of the reason, researchers should report what happened, Professor Barnett says.

Otherwise, not only is the research money wasted, but patients miss out as well.

“Sufferers of diseases being studied are being denied information which could have informed a better treatment,” Professor Barnett points out.

He says the ball on this issue is in the court of the funders. They have tremendous power over researchers and they should create stronger incentives to publish results, regardless of outcome.

Funders could make a funding contract contingent on a commitment to publish results, he says. Researchers who miss reporting deadlines could be fined or have further funding withheld.

“Too many scientists take public money without delivering on that investment,” Professor Barnett concludes.

You can access the study here.