Lab notebooks, lab websites, the future.

About a year ago I went through a phase of rabid excitement regarding my lab’s website. Then I had to do some experiments, write grants, move across the country. And then today I became rabidly excited again.
Things in the Snyder lab are at a critical moment. My first 2 undergrads have retired, and new undergrads, a grad student, and postdocs have arrived or are arriving soon. Fledgling projects that I initiated are being handed off and I can tell things are going to grow rapidly. Now is the time to institute strange lab protocols so they become the norm. Today’s question is how to keep abreast of it all that is going on. Typically, one uses hardcover lab notebooks and the only person that ever looks at them is the experimenter, and occasionally other lab members when that person has left and there’s work to tidy up. As long as there’s decent communication this model can work just fine. But sometimes communication is hard, sometimes lab notebooks are messy, but most of all, there’s so much more that a lab notebook could be.

My re-rabidness (re-raBIDniss) was spawned as I was passing on my experimental notes to a student. The notes were in a Google doc so I could either copy and paste them, or just invite them to share the document. And if everyone in the lab used it then we’d all be on the same page (whose rats for which expt, who has expertise in certain protocols, general curiosity about lab projects). And then I wondered, is it a concern for one lab member to see another’s experimental notes? It sounds crazy but given the amount of secrecy involved in producing scientific research and the fact that no ever reads another’s lab book I wondered if it might just “feel weird”. Since in my heart open notebook science is the way to go, and since some actually put this into practice, I figure there are no real issues with simply sharing notes thoughout the lab, and any weirdness will be temporary and far outweighed by the positives.

At the moment I envision something like: A WordPress blog as the lab home page, containing links to Google spreadsheets (colony, orders, etc), documents (individuals’ experimental notes), calendars, files etc. But if this is where we go every day to organize our science, why have a separate site to present ourselves to the world? Why not make our lab notebook and lab website the same thing? And that’s where the blog comes in, where we can share data, pretty pix, random lab occurrences, literature reviews, whatever. There would likely be different views depending on whether you’re logged in (a lab member) or viewing from the outside. So this wouldn’t be completely open notebook science or anything, but I think it would help unify many of our responsibilities as scientists, namely to effectively and intelligently plan experiments, record our findings, communicate and educate (of course, great venue for jokes too).

One Comment:

  1. The university I am at provides the infrastructure to run Wikis. We started one using the university infrastructure in the optics/physics lab where I’m a post-doc about two years ago, and we’ve used the Wiki as a complement to a physical lab notebook. We describe procedures, “solved” problems, keep logs of regularly checked laser powers, etc… We have also posted plots and images, as well as posted data there, but that has been less common.

    If I had my druthers (i.e. my own lab), I would make the Wiki the only place that such things exist (easy copies, a university-supported back up system, access to whomever we wish, searchable, change logs, etc…), but the main disadvantage of a Wiki is that you can’t just start writing like with a physical notebook. Maybe having a tablet that interfaces with the Wiki, and is effectively the lab notebook, would make things easier to update in real time, especially if you could keep from being auto-logged out of the Wiki.

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