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Project FEM

Topic of the project

The project "Forms and Effects of Failure in Science" (FEM) deals with forms of scientific failure and their - field-specific - consequences for the research biographies and careers of scientists as well as for the knowledge production of their scientific communities.

The FEM project is exploratory in nature, as little is known to date about the forms and effects of failure in science – i.e. the failure to achieve the results sought by researchers.


Neither the scientific communities nor the science studies community engage in a systematic discussion of failure. The bias of scientific communities in favor of successful science is rooted in their mode of production, which is based on their members’ practice of generating solutions to problems and offering them to each other for further use. The possibilities of connection for new research contributions are generally higher for positive contributions than for contributions that describe exactly one path that should not be taken. This implicit evaluation gives rise to:

  1. a tendency of peer review to select safe projects and thus to disadvantage risky projects;
  2. a 'publication bias' of journals that penalizes the publication of failures;
  3. an inherent tendency of all evaluation systems based on publications, citations, or external funding to penalize failure because they connect to these evaluation mechanisms of the scientific communities.

These tendencies create strong pressure on scientists to avoid risks. Young scientists have to be successful in order to obtain tenured positions. Scientists in tenured positions must be successful in order to attract the funding necessary to sustain their research and (increasingly) to meet expectations of evaluation-based research management.

To be sure, research policy and scientific communities have recognized the negative consequences of suppressing risky research and publications about failures. For example, journals dedicated to the publication of negative results and funding programs that explicitly support risky research are emerging. To date, however, there have been no attempts to limit the punishment of risk-taking that is inherent in evaluation systems. One reason is that we know too little about failure. Even in science studies, aside from isolated references to negative consequences of failure, the extent of these consequences and specific consequences of different forms of failure are largely ignored.

Objectives and research questions

The FEM project addresses these knowledge gaps by creating a typology of failure and relating it to consequences for scientists (which can extend all the way to career termination) and for the research of their scientific communities (e.g., the diminishing attractiveness of certain research topics).

A spectrum of failure is assumed, ranging from the occasional failure in the course of a project, to the failure of individual projects lagging behind the success of others, to the significant failure of a central research endeavor.

The FEM project will focus on significant failure and answer the following questions:

  1. What forms of failure can be empirically observed in different fields of study? What epistemic properties of fields are these forms of failure associated with?
  2. What consequences do different forms of failure have for the knowledge production of scientists and their professional community?
  3. What strategies do scientists use to conduct risky research despite the negative consequences of failure?
  4. How is failure communicated in scientific communities? Which (informal) communication channels are used?
  5. How can different forms of failure be tolerated by evaluation systems?


Qualitative interviews with scientists who have experienced significant failure and also bibliometric methods will be used to implement the research project.

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