Learning from your mistakes

Science is all about mistakes, trial and error are key aspects of the scientific method and discovery. However, no one really cares to admit this, and it’s understandable, there is a significant stigma associated with making a mistake.

No one wants to admit that they were wrong, or that they wasted time and effort on something that just didn’t work. But if we do not share these missteps, how many times will that mistake be repeated? Perhaps not by you, but you are certainly not the first, and if you don’t share, you certainly won’t be the last.

So how can we learn to accept failure as a natural part of doing…. Anything? By normalising it, by accepting that an error was made and owning it! That might sound all well and good, but in science, mistakes can be costly, and are the stakes too high to proudly show off your failures? Well, maybe we can’t afford to.

This drive for success may actually be damaging the integrity of science as a whole, even with the best intentions of driving innovation forward. As the industry of science becomes increasingly competitive, and promotion depends completely on publication, hopefully in major peer-reviewed journals, researchers are desperate to have their work recognised and to secure funding to continue their work further, and this is where we find ourselves at the thin end of a wedge. As the current business model for most of these high-impact journals is similar to traditional media, the sexiest research gets priority when it comes to publication. Experiments with “bombastic” results get priority over boring but equally important research.

This has a number of knock-on effects, such as a reduced motivation to perform repeatability studies to confirm the results of previous studies, and the subtle manipulation of data to obtain a set of results that when put through your statistical analysis produces that magic number of 0.05.

This is not to say that researchers and scientists do this on purpose, I would like to think that almost all scientists conduct their research and share their results in good faith. But that drive to not fail can produce some underlying bias in a scientific study, and in a time where public trust is vitally important, any hint of foul play can result in future mistrust and disregard of scientific advice.

This is why Responsible Research and Innovation is so important; by establishing better links between societal bodies and research institutes, much of the mystique of what scientists do can be removed, and can ultimately produce citizens who are more open to understanding science, and researchers who are more open to sharing what they do outside of their academic bubbles. But, by itself, this does not fix the underlying problem. Institutional changes in how the academic machine works are also required.

This is where open science practices could play a key role. By levelling the playing field and by raising the profile of open-source journals, where research can more easily be published and cheaply available to other scientists, much of this pressure can be lifted. Although, there are currently some issues with the review process of open-source journals, where less vigorous attention to detail is given to papers submitted to these platforms. If a greater prestige was given to these publications, it would also attract a higher quality of reviewers, and with open access to research data, replication studies could easily be conducted to confirm these findings.

But how can we change these perceptions? perhaps admitting that the process is no longer fit for purpose and to carry on using this antiquated practice is a mistake. “That we are all wrong”

And that is where we come full circle. We need to normalise “being wrong about things” when it comes to research. It can be little steps, to begin with, but in time we may just be able to admit when we were wrong about something fundamental. And we can all learn from our mistakes.

So, to practice what I preach here is my science/research mistakes….

As a zoologist and an ecologist by training, I once went to a job interview and told the panel that “I was a very proud member of Cheshire Active Naturists”, instead of naturalists. For non-native-English speakers that might seem to be a very subtle difference, however, a naturalist is someone who enjoys nature and the study thereof, whereas a naturist is someone who enjoys being naked in the company of others…. Unsurprisingly…I did not get the job….

If that is not enough here is another, in my first week as a research assistant at an agricultural university, I set a bin on fire when I failed to dispose of some embers from an experiment correctly. The lab technicians mostly saw the funny side…. Eventually.


Henk Mulder is not only a lecturer and programme director in science communication, but also a long-time coordinator of the Science Shop at Groningen University, The Netherlands, and one of the founders of the Living Knowledge Network that will hold its 9th international conference in 2022, that is holding their own “Learning from your mistakes” event.

Henk tells me …

Henk Mulder

“We got the idea for the “learning from mistakes” session when I was at the Canadian CU2Expo Conference in 2017. In the safe environment of a local pub, there was a ‘failure wake’, in which our colleagues stood on a soapbox and explained how they messed up a project. On asking around (and with a little help from Google) we later found out there is a whole world of these sessions, under various names (such as the globally celebrated ‘f*** up nights’).

In these sessions, you speak about things you don’t want to publish. And sometimes you don’t even want your boss to know… In a way that’s strange, because we all make mistakes. It’s just that the safe space to share these seems missing.

In that sense, we might learn people from all fields, from aviation to medicine. Pilots will report near accidents, in order to improve procedures or technology, but can only do so without risk of prosecution. I also learned from colleagues at a hospital, that they organise meetings that you were not allowed to attend if you had never admitted a mistake yourself. Now that’s taking away inhibitions!

At our conference, we want to do a little extra with our proposed session. As much as I liked the failure wake in Vancouver, I hardly remember a thing (and that’s not because it took place in a pub 😉). Therefore, we will try to create a paper out of ours, provided we can keep all examples confidential and the participants agree.

Typically, in our work of doing research with and for communities, there can be mistakes in Partnership or Stakeholder Relations (e.g. in expectations management, in adverted exclusion, trust/distrust), Research Methodology (as in any regular research project), Publicity (things that are taken out of context because you were unclear, or you didn’t think of what it would sound like in the press or you forget to make an agreement with the journalist) — or “Something Else”. The latter may have to do with working with students, which is the most common way our research gets done.

I think in my 30+ years at the Science Shop, and before that during my studies in Chemistry, I made so many mistakes… Small ones, like using the large fire extinguisher to put out a small fire in the lab, or speaking to a journalist without agreeing to fact-check before publication. Or funny ones, like bringing the wrong set of overhead sheets to class and having to rush home for the right ones (nostalgia from the pre-powerpoint era).

Somewhat more severe is stepping on some toes of foreign partners with my Dutch directness. I try to avoid this but sometimes it still happens.

There are however larger strategic mistakes, like starting to supervise more research projects ourselves instead of involving research staff from the faculty. It seems like the proper thing to do because sometimes universities don’t have the knowledge yet on new and emerging issues brought forward to us by civil society groups. In the long term, however, you threaten your position as part of the faculty, with its audited research groups.

Maybe the big mistake in our line of work is not making enough publicity for what you are doing, because you are always understaffed and overworked and running to the next project with its student and civil society partner — thus losing visibility in the end.

So please join our conference and our session and share your successes and mistakes. And don’t worry, even if you have never made a mistake before, but promise to make a big one before the conference, you will be most welcome as well!”

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