Giving Open Notebook Science a Try

Openness is spreading, one researcher at a time: Jeremiah Faith, a Boston U graduate student in bioinformatics, has put his lab notes online:

Open Notebook Science […] is a term coined by Jean-Claude Bradley. The idea is simply that the heart of every person’s research – their lab notebook – should be open to the world.
Since most of our scientific work is funded by tax payers who expect their money to be well-spent, it’s interesting that openness isn’t required. Science typically builds on the body of available knowledge – the more knowledge available the faster science goes. It’s striking when you visit other labs in person; you see all of their unpublished work, and you know that most of their results and data won’t be available to the bulk of the scientific community until a year after each particular scientific project is finished. By the time papers are in print, it’s old news to the insiders. More striking is when you visit labs whose work you’ve thought about replicating and expanding on. It’s not too uncommon to find that only one person in the entire lab is able to get the technique to work, and even for him the technique only works on Wednesdays. This type of information would be useful to know before you embark on a useless three months trying to adapt their method. But scientific publications are covered in a thick coat of high-gloss finish, making these unacknowledged difficulties hard to detect.
Lab notebooks on the other hand are flat black. As long as people keep them regularly updated, they contain the good, the bad, and the completely nonsensical results.
Today I test the waters of Open Notebook Science.
The latest version of my lab notebook is now automatically posted on J’s Lab Notebook Page each night. I’ve been using an electronic lab notebook for two years now, so there’s quite a bit of data in there – good and bad (300+ pages).

This is simply fantastic. One of the things that Open Science advocates most sorely lack is concrete examples. Doing research in public, instead of in secret, is a new and somewhat unnerving idea for most scientists; early adopters like Jeremiah are essential to take the edge off that unfamiliarity.
(It’s also, to be honest, just plain fun to snoop around in someone else’s lab notes! I was amused to note that Jeremiah talks to and about himself in his notebook, the same way I do — “if I weren’t so stupid I’d…”, “next time load the control first, doofus”, etc. I wonder if everyone does that?)

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