What should we make of unpublished research?

“Mindful” and “military” may sound like two words that would never go together, but given  all the research on the benefits of mindfulness for depression, anxiety, and other disorders it shouldn’t be at all surprising that mindful meditation is being investigated as a treatment for PTSD in war veterans. The only catch comes early on the first page of the article: After calling one of the studies showing the advantage of mindfulness training a “pilot study” (essentially, a trial run to get the lay of the land), the journalist goes on to note: “They have completed two other studies whose findings have not been published.”

I am very much on the fence about trying to make a splash with unpublished research. On the one hand, I understand the impulse, because getting through peer review takes time. My first journal article was published in 2009, but it had first been submitted in 2007. Those two years improved the quality of our writing, but didn’t fundamentally alter the findings we were presenting; in theory (if my research were the kind that makes for good headlines, which it isn’t) anything we took to the newspapers would have been just as true in 2007 as it is now. When you’ve found something you feel could really make a difference – something, for example, that might inspire a person struggling with PTSD to seek out a new avenue of treatment – it’s hard to sit on that result for years without publicity while reviews are written and relatively minor revisions are made.

On the other hand, publicizing unpublished results can backfire. It makes it easy for skeptics to dismiss: just as anecdotes by individuals can be dismissed as nothing but “placebo effects“, unpublished results can be dismissed as “not really scientific”. There are enough problems with refusal to believe scientific results out there already, without making it easier for skeptics to dismiss news articles because they decide a paper has a history of jumping the gun in reporting “scientific” findings. And of course there are studies that don’t stand up to peer review, which is why we have the peer review process in the first place – but if the findings have already been publicized, they will persist on the Internet providing misinformation, much like Andrew Wakefield’s discredited findings about vaccines and autism.

Which hand holds this particular piece of news? Probably the first one. The balance of evidence from other disorder supports the research, the caliber of other work done by the researchers involved is good, and the “pilot study” seems solid, all of which leads me to believe the results will eventually be published. Although I’ve been reminded to look for the potential downsides of meditation (also from currently unpublished research, for that matter), and we have no idea whether these risks are particularly great in traumatized populations, I expect that the article will do more good than harm.

But I will be looking for those peer-reviewed publications in the not-too-distant future.


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