Open Notebook Science as a science blog

I’ve been sharing my research openly as an open notebook for 4 years now, and this past year I’ve been undertaking this endeavor using the WordPress content management system. When I first started with WordPress, I would hear my notebook constantly referred to as my blog. It is true that the layout is of a blog, but I was doing open notebook science, I’m not blogging.

Unfortunately every now and then I would write a post, just like this one, that was not related to the story that my research was telling. I would write posts about open notebooks, open science, or just my random thoughts in general.

I still do.

So of course, me defending my “blog” as an open notebook and maintaining that as a separate entity became more challenging. But maintain I did.

Until I presented in front of esteemed colleagues at the Library of Congress. I began my presentation telling the story of how my notebook wasn’t a blog. Everyone always confuses it with a blog but I argue the differences, until they just concede that they won’t change my mind. It wasn’t until the morning of the presentation that I embraced my open notebook as a blog.

I continued my story in front of a room of the most important people I’ve ever met in my life. I explained how I forgot to email myself a link to the presentation that I created on Mind Meister. And I thought about it for a while and I had nothing with me to send myself the link. Then I realized, that because of my nature of openness I knew exactly where my presentation could be found… on my blog!

Luckily for me, all the build up about how I would never consider my open notebook as a blog paid off and I got a good laugh from the room, and hopefully I got a good one from the most prominent science blogger I know, Bora (@BoraZ).

And from there I continued to explain how my notebook worked and what it means to the world. And ever since that day I’ve thought a lot about this: open notebooks actually have two responsibilities. The first is they create a “paper trail” of scientific information that can improve the efficiency of the scientific process. The second is scientific outreach, and that is attainable through the view of an open notebook as a science blog.

Science bloggers take their work seriously. They understand they have a responsibility to enhance the public’s perception of science. Science blog posts must be accurate and informative, but be accessible and readable, and that is not easy. And the hardest part is that while maintaining scientific integrity, the articles produced must be entertaining and interesting. Putting all that together is not easy and extremely important.

While the main function of science blogs is to make science fun and educational, engaging the audience actual provides an immeasurable service. By informing the public about scientific research and how it impacts their daily lives, bloggers are showing that science isn’t just for nerds. It shows the importance of science and scientists, of which public opinion has dwindled over the past few decades.

Instead of praising scientists for the goals produced by the many varieties of experiments and the diversity of research, people question whether it is all worth it. The government limits spending on research more and more, and the public demand these actions.

But why is this?

I think a lot of it stems from the fact that many people are uninformed as to what research actually is, what it provides, and what scientists actually do. But science blogs and bloggers are improving these perceptions every day. And open notebook science can help!

New Mexico is home to two of the most well known national labs, Los Alamos and Sandia, and two major universities, UNM (where I am) and New Mexico State. There are very few people who actually know about the research that is undertaken at those facilities. The worst part is even at each location it isn’t well known what other research is being conducted.

The saddest part about it is the local community is very interested in understanding what goes on in their backyard, but these facilities provide no outreach unless something groundbreaking happens and the result is a press release.

A network of open research notebooks/blogs would go a long way in bridging this gap between public understanding and actual research. Scientists writing about their own research provides the chance for others to interact directly with the scientist allowing them to ask questions, provide feedback, and maybe even lend a hand. This kind of interaction could lead to very interesting developments, with the scientist perhaps seeing things he wouldn’t have seen before.

Another benefit would be a deeper level of interest in science from the public. More children may be interested in science from a younger age. More students may be encouraged to enter a PhD program. More amateur scientists may emerge. And perhaps funding for research and research training grants (like the IGERT) may emerge.

Just the other day, a friend of mine in Stanford put a status message that said “live-blogging my experiment” so I asked him to send me the link. He showed me his real-time notes and it got me interested in his experiment. I was actually really excited about the level of interaction that I had while another scientist was doing an experiment, and I bet there are a lot of people out there that would be as excited or more so.

What if members of the local community could get live updates on your experiments, watch the experiments unfold, and offer insight into what you’re doing? The benefits of ONS in terms of science outreach could be huge. But more than that, I think open notebook scientists have a responsibility to provide that outreach. I’ve taken it upon myself to carry it out. Will you join me?