Open Notebook Science as a research outlet

Last week I discussed the perspective of open notebook science (ONS) as a science blog, and the potential it has to be an outlet for high quality scientific outreach. Allowing non-scientist readers access to real-time scientific studies can be a very powerful tool to engage an audience and develop an interest in science directly from the scientist! I’ve taken it upon myself to make this endeavor a responsibility and I hope others join me in the cause.

But there is another perspective of open notebook science that is a bit more obvious, that of a primary source of scientific information. This perspective carries several responsibilities that any potential open notebook scientist should understand when making the leap to ONS.

The biggest complaint against ONS that I get from fellow scientists is the increase in signal-to-noise for scientific information. They are right! To a certain extent. Imagine a world where thousands of the world’s scientists publicly record their step-by-step protocols, raw data, interpreted data, and random thoughts. One would expect an increase in the amount of scientific information especially when measured with the amount of current publications and future publications.

But I’ve never heard a scientist complain about the internet, so why would they complain about this? Search engines help you filter out all that noise. The noise being scientific articles containing information that you don’t care about, isn’t relevant, isn’t complete, or just plain wrong.

Personally I’ve been affected by peer-reviewed publications missing information too many times (and even once is too many times for my taste). And this is where ONS can supersede peer-review. The open notebook can contain all manners of important and highly detailed information. And that should be the responsibility of an open notebook scientist: to add as much detail to a project post as possible.

My dad tells me all the time, “It’s better to have too much than too little,” and this rings absolutely true for scientific information. There have been countless times that I haven’t included every bit of information in a post (back in my OWW days) and then come back to that post wishing I had written the little bit extra that I needed to know.

But there is a little caveat that will lead us to our next responsibility as open notebook scientists: make sure that information is high quality. It can be important to post information that is from failed experiments or results that disprove the current hypothesis, but try to avoid posting flat out wrong/misleading information at all costs.

If open notebook scientists get a reputation to not be trustworthy, the whole movement could collapse before it builds tipping point momentum. It is our responsibility to make sure that the science we publish on a daily, weekly, monthly, etc basis is high quality scientific information. After all we want to be good scientists, and ONS can lead us there faster than the traditional model.

But what if an open notebook scientist publishes a mistake? Well that brings us to our next responsibility: honesty! It’s ok to make a mistake, everyone does. But own the mistake, don’t hide it, don’t cover it up, and don’t lie about it. Open notebook scientists should be advocates of great science, and full transparency will reveal that. Cover ups don’t even survive the traditional process, it just takes longer to reveal bad science. With full transparency mistakes and bad science (intentional/unintentional) will be revealed much faster.

A peer-reviewed retraction is a big deal because of all the time and effort that went into that publication. Your reputation will take a big hit if you have to go through that. With ONS a mistake is less costly, because you have time to acknowledge and correct the error. This ultimately will lead to a higher quality of science.

Open notebook entries are frequently held as more informal writings (compared to peer-reviewed publications), but following the responsibilities outlined here you’ll find yourself treating each entry with the integrity of a short peer-reviewed publication. And that’s the way it should be.

The reputation of your lab and yourself are at stake. But even more so the reputation of the open science community is also on the line and we all want to look good… together!