Dual blogging: The time commitment for keeping an open notebook

One of the top questions I get asked (or comments that I receive) is how much time do I spend on my notebook? It’s sort of a loaded question I think. If I say I spend a lot of time writing in my notebook then my audience, which is already looking for an excuse not to have an open notebook, will be turned away. “I don’t have enough time for that.” On the flip side, if I say it doesn’t require all that much time then the scientific integrity of my research is debated.

It’s human nature to take the easy way out. And as such scientists don’t want to spend countless hours keeping their notebook up to date. This is understandable, but it is foolish to think that keeping a notebook requires very little time to update.

I always forget to respond, but when I’m asked “How much time do I spend keeping up with my notebook?” I should reply, “How much time do you spend maintaining your paper notebook?”

While the two platforms aren’t necessarily the same, the question gets the scientist to think about their own workflow, realizing that they already keep a notebook and if they are a good scientist then it will be full of detailed information, which requires a decent amount of time. The only real difference between an open notebook and a paper one is the word open, technically.

Having an open notebook doesn’t require having a fancy blog, website, social media campaign, etc. All you need is to somehow publish your notes to the internet, and simply put that can just be scanning in your notebook and pushing it to facebook (an account most people already have!). If you are even slightly tech savvy, you can complete this task with minimal time each day (using your phone camera and the facebook app), on the order of 2 minutes! There is literally no excuse to not be open in this scenario.

But what if you want to have a completely electronic notebook that is as detailed as it gets. Let’s take my notebook for example, how long do I spend writing posts and updating information? The most time consuming aspects of my notebook are my introduction posts and my protocol posts.

The introduction posts have to make sense to my audience without having to search for too much background information. In order to accomplish this, I have to spend some time thinking about what I want to say and how to say it simply and this takes time. And the protocols take time because I want my setup to be as detailed as possible so no one needs to struggle to replicate my work.

My results posts usually take the least amount of time because I’m just posting data with some quick thoughts as I still have them. All the analysis is done external to the post so usually my thoughts are ready to transcribe. And posts that are of raw data require the least amount of time because those are just pure information without the need for translation, or analysis. I may write down a quick idea here or there, but most of the time it’s just pure science.

The notebook entries that require the most time are entries like this one. These are the posts that are informational and mostly external to my core research. I need to really think about what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it, and it ends up being written more as a formal blog post then a typical notebook entry.

The key for managing the open notebook and my research without wasting time or effort is that I’ve completely adjusted to being 100% electronic. I usually have a laptop, tablet, or my phone with me at all times. Notes are transcribed in real-time as the research happens. I write my methods immediately after setting up and experiment (usually that time is dead anyway), data gets published as it is collected and again once it is organized, and results are written at first opportunity. I’ve essentially cut out the middle-man which would be the paper notebook.

If you are interested in keeping an electronic open notebook then I suggest you do the same. Get used to writing electronically. There are a lot of services that can actually help you save time. You don’t need to write a table of contents, you don’t need to paste pictures, you don’t need to remember where you keep information. You may find that you are more efficient because you are paperless, like I have.