Key Features of an Open Notebook

Every scientist is supposed to keep a lab journal or notebook. You don’t always remember everything you’ve done exactly, and other lab members don’t know what protocols you use either. Keeping a lab notebook helps with all that and is just good practice. In fact in almost all professions it is useful to keep track of your work.

Typically a notebook should have these qualities: it should be organized and it should be detailed. If it’s not organized no one will be able to use it. If it isn’t detailed, you run the risk of losing vital information.

I know I’ve fallen into the trap of not writing something down thinking that I would remember the details. When later arrives, I look through my notes and wish I had written down several key details.

Because of the internet it is possible to keep our notes online and make them publicly accessible in an open notebook. An open notebook should be kept similarly to a regular paper notebook, but there are some qualities that should be addressed which makes it much more powerful:

  • A notebook should be searchable. This alone makes an electronic notebook supreme to a paper notebook. Notice I said electronic instead of open. Even if you choose not to have an open notebook, having an electronic notebook offers the advantage of being searchable. Most software offers some sort of search method, no need for a table of contents here!
  • An open notebook should be indexable. For me this is a major deal. If an open notebook isn’t indexed by search engines who is going to find it? Not only does it aid others in finding your protocols or notes, but it makes it easier for you to search your notebook for information. A lot of search engines have better technology than the search feature that is incorporated into your notebook software.
  • A notebook should be detailed. This is a given since it’s important for a notebook in general to be detailed. Just because you may remember what you did in a given protocol, does not mean that others reading your notes will know what you did. And they certainly can’t read your mind either.
  • An open notebook should be organized. And a lot of internet technology makes this so easy that you have no excuse to not have some level of organization. A good rule of thumb is that better organization makes it easier for people to find your content. And since you are providing valuable information, you want others to find your content.
  • Bonus: Your notebook should be accessible. Not everyone understands what you are talking about, so there is nothing wrong with spending a little extra time to explain the jargony words you decided to use in a post. There are tons of papers that do a poor job of explaining their methods and results in plain english, and open notebook scientists don’t want to fall into that trap. After all, if peers can’t understand your language then your notebook is as useful as not having posted anything in the first place. Ok I’m exaggerating a little in that last part, but accessibility is important. No one wants to spend their time using a translator to understand the jargon in a notebook post.
While your open notebook doesn’t have to be accessible, it does have to incorporate the other qualities. Everyone has their own way of doing things and taking notes is no different.
Generally when taking notes, the only thing that matters is what works for you. As long as you can use it, and make sure that you can use it, your notebook is useful. The most important thing is that future you will be able to understand what is written at a later date. This still applies to an open notebook because you have to be able to reuse the information later.
Open notebooks have the added advantage of being useful to anyone in the world. And the fact that you’ve decided to keep an open notebook most likely means that you understand this. That means that you want it to be useful, and by adhering to the basic guidelines above you’re ensuring that your notebook can be used by someone, somewhere.