Photo by sararah on Flickr
A scientist’s notebook is like an artist’s sketchbook mixed with captain’s logs. It can be extremely personal and yet it is the definitive record for both day to day scientific research and for higher-level brainstorming. It can be haphazardly disorganized or meticulously organized. But until electronic media came around, we were stuck with pasting pieces of paper alongside handwritten notes in stacks of bound notebooks or 3-ring binders – a pain not only to store but also to search through when you’re looking for how exactly you ran that particular experiment on that particular sample on that particular equipment.
While it’s not quite the norm yet, these days it’s not uncommon for people to use software such as wikis or journaling programs to record their everyday research activities. This has obvious advantages beyond legibility and saving trees; you can search your notes, link them to data files or figures, and back up multiple copies. You can tag and categorize entries, and the electronic files are automatically timestamped. Wikis, in particular, include versioning, so that any modifications you make to an entry are also recorded and timestamped.
These features should be a boon to any researcher, but there are some important “meta” benefits that can be yours (and ours) if you choose. Making things electronic lowers barriers to access and sharing. If you use a wiki or a blog to record your notes, you can choose to keep them online (useful for accessing from anywhere there’s an internet connection), and further, to make them public. At it’s logical extreme, this translates to “making the entire primary record of a research project publicly available online as it is recorded” along with all raw and processed data, the current definition of open notebook science (ONS) on Wikipedia. A number of scientists and labs practice and advocate ONS, including Jean-Claude Bradley at Drexel, Cameron Neylon at the ISIS Neutron Facility, and Gus Rosania at University of Michigan. They argue that the benefits – both to themselves and to the scientific community at large – far outweigh the risks.
Complete ONS obviously isn’t for everyone, but regardless of whether the practice becomes widely adopted, we should now be able to designate certain labs or notebooks of satisfying the definition of ONS. We can even designate partial ONS – whether all or only part of the content is available, and whether the content is made available immediately or after some time delay (usually for IP or publication purposes). Jean-Claude Bradley has broken down these types of ONS into a set of claims inspired by Creative Commons licenses along with initial logos created by Andy Lang.
The Creative Commons model is great for getting across the terms of your content quickly and unambiguously, so I am a big fan of this initiative. I would love to see more research notebooks online, and to see them displaying badges or banners identifying them as a type of ONS. I got so excited that I started making my own logos, which, happily, Jean-Claude and Andy Lang seem to like:
Two potential problems with these logos that I can think of are:
- whether it reads as “ons” rather than o-n-s (in which case perhaps uppercase would help),
- the use of a beaker which could feel exclusive to those not in the experimental or life-sciences,
Incidentally, I made these images in Keynote (Apple’s version of Powerpoint), of all places. I simply couldn’t be bothered to fire up Adobe Illustrator with its bajillions of tools and palettes, and while I had to fudge a bit to get certain things to look right (my way of coloring in the beaker, for example, is hilariously crude), it was still pretty painless. Who knew?
I’ll be making more official mockups for Andy in the next day or two, so if anyone has additional feedback on these designs (or a different design entirely) I’d love to hear it!