Open Notebook Series: Why You Should Be An Open Notebook Scientist

July 6, 2012 | Posted by Anthony in Research |

This is the second in a series of posts by Anthony Salvagno about open notebook science.

Any discussion of a new scientific technique should begin with “What? Why? and How?”. The “Why?” in the case of Open Notebook Science (ONS) is likely the most important aspect of the paradigm. It is the most frequent question I get asked when discussing ONS, and its answers represent the key to unlocking its merits.

With this in mind, there are three main facets to ONS I can describe, which give credence to why one should be an open notebook scientist.

Sharing is caring

About a year ago I was working on a project that required me to tether micron sized spheres to glass with DNA. I had my own protocol for successful tethering that was having some issues, so I turned to the literature.

I read about 10 different papers, each describing a different protocol, and often unclearly. I attempted each version of the published protocols after spending a great deal of time “decoding” the publications, and ended up with a different result every time. By contrast, had I had access to the raw protocols of each lab, I would have saved a lot of time. So as an ONS scientist, I published my own protocol, hoping to save other scientists a great deal of time.

Such a practice represents the golden rule of life: to treat others as you would like to be treated.  Applying this rule to science makes sense as well. If you wish you had access to certain information (protocols, raw data, random details and thought process, etc) then why wouldn’t you reciprocate?

This concept is not new to scientific disciplines even. Open source software (mentioned in the previous post) has been around for some time, and is gaining significant traction. There are even online repositories dedicated to aiding the movement. In turn, if such a concept can flourish in a more commercial environment, there is nothing to say it cannot work in basic science as well.

Enhancing your research, developing collaborations

Before the advent of the internet, there were limited avenues to sharing pure scientific information with peers and collaborators. Information was consequently kept in home labs, stored indefinitely, or simply discarded. Now there are an array of tools (think blogs and social media) that allow information to be shared and propagated at an increasingly rapid pace.

Such tools can be leveraged comparably within existing scientific paradigms. Scientists often work within existing systems, asking “How can you enhance it, improve it?” ONS provides a platform to enhance scientific processes, pushing the limits for how far one can go.

By documenting your experiments and sharing them, you allow other scientists to enhance the work you’ve done.  You speed up the research process, and may even develop collaborations that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. Case in point, I likely would not have chanced upon Science Exchange (or written this blog series), had I not been involved in ONS.

Transparency leads to quality

The inherent transparency to ONS forces you to think more critically about your research.

Knowing beforehand that your research will be open for scrutiny, you’ll think twice about taking that minor shortcut in the lab that may save you twenty minutes. And if you take the shortcut and decide not to publish, you’ll be critiqued for the omission. By consequence, publishing openly in real time forces you to be careful, thorough, and explicit. No one will be able to question the integrity of your research, because the entire record will be available to anyone.

Even posting a mistake in your research openly isn’t as troublesome as it sounds. The worst case scenario is that you redo an experiment, and the best case is that posting openly helped you find the mistake. You’ll be able to produce much more reliable data, having caught the mistake before the analysis process, or worse, before publishing.

In turn, ONS can help you minimize the potential for publication retraction. You may actually enhance the likelihood of getting into your top tier journal, as there may be less questions about your scientific methods and results. The science you do is reputable and you can prove it with your open notebook. You may become known as one of the top scientists in your field, and at the very least you will maximize your potential.

Transparency, accuracy, and reproducibility are the key themes for scientific research, and open notebook science can accordingly help you with all three.

About the author

Anthony Salvagno (Twitter: thescienceofant) is a grad student in the KochLab in the Physics and Astronomy department at the University of New Mexico. He is an open notebook scientist and publishes all of his experimental results in real-time on his IheartAnthony open notebook / blog. Anthony is also a member of the Science Advocate program.

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