The ethics of open notebooks

During Junior Lab lecture I was given (graciously) 15 minutes to talk to the students about the ethics of keeping an online open notebook. A lot of the things I discussed kinda go without say, but I said them anyway mostly because I think it is important to stress certain points, especially in the context of the lab. I want to establish that most things that the students probably want to do (copy, paraphrase, google, etc) are completely ok, when done right!

Believe it or not, notebooking is a form of journalism. Your notebook has a duty to present accurate and reproducible data, whether it is just for yourself or you publish it to the whole world (like me!). If you go electronic and open then you have an extra duty to make sure the information is readable so others who may come across it can use it or reproduce the data that you are presenting. Basically you have to uphold the integrity of the information you are presenting and the integrity of yourself as a scientist.

And because you are (most likely) updating daily, this is extra crucial. Typically researchers publish a few times a year and so integrity is important internally day-to-day and then publically those few times. When you are open, integrity is key all the time because someone will find mistakes and holes and that can destroy everything (if you publish in a shady manner).

So how do you maintain a great notebook? Well I like to follow the rules of general blogging to get started:

  • Accuracy – let’s be honest, you aren’t going to create everything you need in your research, and that means you are going to borrow ideas, information, etc from others. Computers let us do amazing things like copy and paste. Why paraphrase something you found online when you can get it exactly? When you do this make sure you credit the author (see below). When you do create your own content, then keeping an accurate record of everything is vital. If someone can’t follow your work then it can be hard to prove your results. Why bother with this when you can make your notebook awesome and present yourself as a badass scientist!
  • Citations and Attribution – You’ve come across some new information that is really useful to you. On paper you have to cite the source, but in a notebook you can just use a name and a link. It’s so easy you have no excuse not to do it! And make sure you cite everything! You found a neat picture? Give credit to the author (because it’s nice to see your work promoted else where) and add a link to the source material. Found a cool method? Link the notebook, paper, etc. Once you get in the habit, this takes no time at all.
  • Details – If you think you should write it down, then you absolutely should. In science you can’t have too much information, but you most certainly can have too little. Many times in the past did I not include information because I thought I would remember and low and behold month’s later I forget and was angry that I didn’t include it at the time. Avoid that issue for yourself and others and take the extra 30 seconds to make note of something that happened. Everyone will be much better off for it, I promise!
  • Collaboration is key. If others take the time to comment, then take the time to comment back. Make your notebook a source for discussion. If good ideas come from napkins, then notebooks will be the place of the best ideas. But there are some rules you should follow when it comes to commenting:
  • Be specific – say what you did/did not like about an entry, what was hard to understand, what was awesome, what was wrong, what gave you the “a ha!” moment. Saying good job is simply not constructive at all. It may be nice from time to time, but overall those comments add no substance to a notebook.
  • Be constructive – if you see an error, fix it! But be polite, nobody likes a troll. If you thought something was informative, then say why. If you have something to add then do that too. Share your experiences, because that will make the notebook even better.
  • Discuss! – if you read an entry and you have something to say, then say it no matter how trivial it may seem. Who knows what will happen! And don’t just add fixes or comments. Share ideas. My favorite notebook experiences come from my discussion sessions with my advisor. Not only do I have active engagement in my notebook, but I have a saved transcript so I can come back later to try and remember things.
  • Also when it comes to collaboration you should make sure it is clear that you are sharing ideas with whomever else you are working with. Point readers to your cohort’s notebook. Link to their data. Give them attributes. They will do the same for you and the experience will be 1000x better!

One of the things I’ve noticed with my notebook is that the engagement with readers is just not there. With the junior lab course, I’m trying to encourage (and force, haha) the engagement to understand what it will take to engage with my unknown audience. By telling the students that all is fair on the internet as long as you do it ethically, I’m hoping to cultivate the community of the class and passively encourage their interactions with each other. We’ll see what happens.