Open Notebook Series: Core Features of an Open Notebook

August 20, 2012 | Posted by Anthony in Research |

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

An open notebook is supposed to enhance the workflow of the researcher. It helps to maintain a log of experiments, and provide a complete record for others to follow and verify. Ideally, an open notebook would read like a well run blog: updated regularly, easy to follow, and contain a focused theme.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you of the merits of becoming an open notebook scientist throughout this series of posts, and you are deciding what to use as your platform. If that is true, then there are some features you should keep in mind while notebooking. Features such as access, time commitment, community, and versatility are helpful, and if leveraged appropriately can provide a powerful tool for open notebook science.

Access

The most important feature of an open notebook is accessibility. Your notebook must be accessible to yourself, and secondly to others. This means that you should be able to access the information whenever and wherever you are, so make sure you have a reliable hosting service. Access to others is equally important, as you have a responsibility to ensure the information is easy to find as well, necessitating an organized notebook with enabled search indexing.

Most notebook platforms have some sort of search feature, but the search feature is never as good as companies that focus on just search (see Google). By ensuring your notebook is search engine indexed you will help yourself and others in the long run. Personally speaking, I use Google to search my own notebook more frequently than I use my own notebook’s search feature, and it is well worth it.

Organizing your notebook goes hand in hand with searching. If your notebook is unorganized then you may have a difficult time accessing the information you need in the future. Platforms that enable you to tag or categorize notebook entries help a lot, and ones that list posts chronologically can help even more (i.e. blogging platforms). When it comes to organization, you aren’t just helping yourself. If a visitor can’t find important information within a few clicks, they’ll click away from your site and look elsewhere. In our case we want visitors to surf the notebook because there is valuable scientific information that can increase the speed and efficiency of their research, and we want them to have access to it.

But organization isn’t enough either. Your notebook needs to be complete and contain every bit of information that you can possibly include. Writing in shorthand and taking shortcuts may save you a little time and effort, but in the long run it won’t serve you well. Make sure that you document everything you possibly can about an experiment in a post/entry or keep as much a record as possible. In all honesty it won’t take that much longer to document everything. And you never know, you may end up saving yourself a lot of time in the future by keeping your notebook thoroughly organized and complete.

Time Commitment

Keeping a notebook shouldn’t be all-consuming, but will require some amount time and attention.

Most scientists keep a paper notebook with them in the lab, and yet no one ever complains about the time commitment involved therein. The issue is that potential open notebook scientists feel the need to maintain an open notebook in conjunction with a traditional paper notebook.

You can however save a lot of time by training yourself to be completely paperless. Carry a laptop, tablet, or smartphone with you and keep real-time notes via those mechanisms. Get used to documenting in your open notebook immediately after a procedure or data analysis session, while the information is still fresh in your mind. Do whatever you need to do to minimize the time you spend to maintain your notebook, just keep it complete and up to date.

Community

Being able to engage an audience in real-time as you carry out an experiment is the competitive edge your open notebook has over all other forms of scientific publication.

As such, make sure the platform you choose has the ability to converse with others. Wikis have talk pages, blogs have commenting systems, and if you publish your notes to social media you can take the conversation there. Having access to criticism, support, and comments in real-time can tremendously improve your research.

It’s not enough though to provide access to conversation, you also need to actually engage in conversation. Responding to comments, even simple ones like “You are doing great research,” gives your community incentive to participate.

Versatility

It’s foolish to think that you will be able to do everything you could possibly want to do in your notebook. My notebook contains a lot of supplemental information stored on different web platforms like Google Docs, figshare, SlideShare, and BenchFly for example. Because of this my notebook needs to be a versatile platform capable of changing functions as my research needs change.

Your needs may be vastly different, but the need for a flexible tool that can handle your workload will not be. Make sure you pick a platform that can be as flexible as you need it to be. Trust me, it’s frustrating to have to switch notebook platforms and essentially start from scratch

(for a list of versatile notebook platforms see my previous post).

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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