Failures fuel science

14 February 2012

Leonie Mück and Thomas Jagau were meeting a previously unexpected need when they started their "Journal of Unsolved Questions" (JUnQ) in 2011. The two doctoral candidates at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) were surprised by the positive response that their journal elicited from all sides. Even though the interest in the publication is still considerable, the future of their "Journal of Unsolved Questions" remains uncertain.

"We have come pretty far when you think that a lot of people thought the idea was ridiculous at first," says Leonie Mück with a trace of pride. Together with Thomas Jagau, she launched the "Journal of Unsolved Questions," JUnQ in short, last year. This journal is dedicated to publishing articles on failed experiments and unresolved questions from all fields of scientific research. The idea stems from a deep-seated conviction - that a lot can be learned from failures. Journals like Science or Nature are solely concerned with successful research. "If there is no opportunity of learning about failures, there is the risk of forever repeating the same mistakes," emphazises Jagau.

In order to talk about their journal, the two had to find an empty lecture room since they don't have anything that serves as an editorial office. Mück and Jagau are actually in the final phases of completing their doctorates in Theoretical Chemistry. They want to finish this year. So it is all the more surprising that they have found the time to produce a journal to such a high professional standard.

Scientists need to be more self-deprecating

On its 28 pages, each edition of JUnQ presents two articles, both of which are peer-reviewed beforehand to assure quality. There are also reports on events and book reviews. "Not to mention our 'Questions of the Week' section," states Mück. "Our articles tend to be directed at specialists and experts, but the questions are designed to reach a wider audience." They deal with various unresolved aspects such as "Is it true that male infants more frequently suffer from flatulence?," "Do female Bonobos fake orgasms?," and "How are memories stored and recalled?" Although comedy may not exactly be what JUnQ is about, it is Jagau's conviction that a sense of humor has a definite role to play. "Scientists need to be more self-deprecating," claims the 25-year-old, "and, at the same time, also need to be more serious about their work." The theme of the third issue of their journal, which has just appeared, is all about this: "Honesty in science." "This is something we were concerned with even before the Guttenberg controversy blew up," says Mück emphatically.

The seed of the idea that became JUnQ was planted during a workshop at the Materials Science in Mainz (MAINZ) Graduate School of Excellence. "The purpose was to develop new business concepts," recalls Mück. "Our project was the only one that was actually implemented," stresses the 26-year-old. "We filled the first issue with contributions from scientists that we personally know," says Jagau. But they now receive so many submissions that they have to decide which to accept and which to reject. The circulation of JUnQ is small; a print run of 250 copies is financed by the Graduate School. The magazine is mainly read online.

JUnQ on the road to success

"It has not earned us any money," clarifies Mück, "but we have made a lot of contacts." For example, JUnQ became the network partner for Berlin's "Falling Walls Conference" and the journal also collaborates with the radio station detektor.fm. Mück also recalls how Peter Görlitz, the editor-in-chief of the journal "Angewandte Chemie," approached them after a podium discussion and was very enthusiastic about the project. They have always met with a positive response from all sides. Thus, Mück and Jagau have been able to place a feature story on JUnQ in "Nachrichten aus der Chemie," and their journal has won the April 2011 "University Pearl" award of the Donors' Association for the Promotion of Sciences and Humanities in Germany.

Will the magazine about failure fail itself?

However, the mood does not remain unclouded. "Whatever happens, we will be publishing our next issue," promises Jagau. But after that? Both of them will finish their dissertation in the near future and it does not seem likely that they will then continue to have time for JUnQ. Though the two of them are about to establish an appropriate organization, it is still unclear whether this will be able to support the journal. "While we've always had great feedback, it is another matter entirely to invest so much time and effort in a journal like this," explains Jagau ruefully. "Perhaps the Graduate School or the University will get involved," is Mück's hope. Otherwise, this refreshing review of science's failures could itself be soon heading for the waste bin of history.