Publishing Negative Results in Machine Learning is like Proving Dragons don’t Exist

I’ve been reading a lot of machine learning papers lately, and one thing I’ve noticed is that the vast majority of papers report positive results — “we used method X on problem Y, and beat the state-of-the-art results”. Very rarely do you see a paper that reports that something doesn’t work.

The result is publication bias — if we only publish the results of experiments that succeed, even statistically significant results could be due to random chance, rather than anything actually significant happening. Many areas of science are facing a replication crisis, where published research cannot be replicated.

There is some community discussion of encouraging more negative paper submissions, but as of now, negative results are rarely publishable. If you attempt an experiment but don’t get the results you expected, your best hope is to try a bunch of variations of the experiment until you get some positive result (perhaps on a special case of the problem), after which you pretend the failed experiments never happened. With few exceptions, any positive result is better than a negative result, like “we tried method X on problem Y, and it didn’t work”.

Why publication bias is not so bad

I just described a cynical view of academia, but actually, there’s a good reason why the community prefers positive results. Negative results are simply not very useful, and contribute very little to human knowledge.

Now why is that? When a new paper beats the state-of-the-art results on a popular benchmark, that’s definite proof that the method works. The converse is not true. If your model fails to produce good results, it could be due to a number of reasons:

  • Your dataset is too small / too noisy
  • You’re using the wrong batch size / activation function / regularization
  • You’re using the wrong loss function / wrong optimizer
  • Your model is overfitting
  • You have a bug in your code

lattice2.pngAbove: Only when everything is correct will you get positive results; many things can cause a model to fail. (Source)

So if you try method X on problem Y and it doesn’t work, you gain very little information. In particular, you haven’t proved that method X cannot work. Sure, you found that your specific setup didn’t work, but have you tried making modification Z? Negative results in machine learning are rare because you can’t possibly anticipate all possible variations of your method and convince people that all of them won’t work.

Searching for dragons

Suppose we’re scientists attending the International Conference of Flying Creatures (ICFC). Somebody mentioned it would be nice if we had dragons. Dragons are useful. You could do all sorts of cool stuff with a dragon, like ride it into battle.


“But wait!” you exclaim: “Dragons don’t exist!”

I glance at you questioningly: “How come? We haven’t found one yet, but we’ll probably find one soon.”

Your intuition tells you dragons shouldn’t exist, but you can’t articulate a convincing argument why. So you go home, and you and your team of grad students labor for a few years and publish a series of papers:

  • “We looked for dragons in China and we didn’t find any”
  • “We looked for dragons in Europe and we didn’t find any”
  • “We looked for dragons in North America and we didn’t find any”

Eventually, the community is satisfied that dragons probably don’t exist, for if they did, someone would have found one by now. But a few scientists still harbor the possibility that there may be dragons lying around in a remote jungle somewhere. We just don’t know for sure.

This remains the state of things for a few years until a colleague publishes a breakthrough result:

  • “Here’s a calculation that shows that any dragon with a wing span longer than 5 meters will collapse under its own weight”

You read the paper, and indeed, the logic is impeccable. This settles the matter once and for all: dragons don’t exist (or at least the large, flying sort of dragons).

When negative results are actually publishable

The research community dislikes negative results because they don’t prove a whole lot — you can have a lot of negative results and still not be sure that the task is impossible. In order for a negative result to be valuable, it needs to present a convincing argument why the task is impossible, and not just a list of experiments that you tried that failed.

This is difficult, but it can be done. Let me give an example from computational linguistics. Recurrent neural networks (RNNs) can, in theory, compute any function defined over a sequence. In practice, however, they had difficulty remembering long-term dependencies. Attempts to train RNNs using gradient descent ran into numerical difficulties known as the vanishing / exploding gradient problem.

Then, Bengio et al. (1994) formulated a mathematical model of an RNN as an iteratively applied function. Using ideas from dynamical systems theory, they showed that as the input sequence gets longer and longer, the result is more and more sensitive to noise. The details are technical, but the gist of it is that under some reasonable assumptions, training RNNs using gradient descent is impossible. This is a rare example of a negative result in machine learning — it’s an excellent paper and I’d recommend reading it.

3.pngAbove: A Long Short Term Memory (LSTM) network handles long term dependencies by adding a memory cell (Source)

Soon after the vanishing gradient problem was understood, researchers invented the LSTM (Hochreiter and Schmidhuber, 1997). Since training RNNs with gradient descent was hopeless, they added a ‘latching’ mechanism that allows state to persist through many iterations, thus avoiding the vanishing gradient problem. Unlike plain RNNs, LSTMs can handle long term dependencies and can be trained with gradient descent; they are among the most ubiquitous deep learning architectures in NLP today.

After reading the breakthrough dragon paper, you pace around your office, thinking. Large, flying dragons can’t exist after all, as they would collapse under their own weight — but what about smaller, non-flying dragons? Maybe we’ve been looking for the wrong type of dragons all along? Armed with new knowledge, you embark on a new search…

4.jpgAbove: Komodo Dragon, Indonesia

…and sure enough, you find one 🙂

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