by PhilipJ on 16 March 2008
The first SciBarCamp is going on this weekend at Hart House at the University of Toronto. The basic idea of SciBarCamp is that of “a gathering of scientists, artists, and technologists for a weekend of talks and discussions.” The kinds of things that have been discussed this weekend are the forefront of science (quantum gravity, synthetic biology, open access, scientific software), and the interactions with science and technology and art. There’s an extremely interesting mix of people here today, from quantum information theorists from the Perimeter Institute to social scientists from OCAD, grad students, science writers, musicians, etc. Quite the eclectic group.
The “un“conference opened up with what was perhaps the most interesting discussion for me. It was by Corie Lok from Nature Networks and John Dupuis from York University on “Science 2.0”, or basically how technology is changing first the way we do science, and then how we publish and track science. Things like Connotea and del.icio.us were discussed as ways to keep track of relevant journal articles, but the discussion was dominated by discussion about keeping track of your experiments, and how this is changing in laboratory environments.
Many labs are moving to an all-digital lab notebook. Gone are pens and paper as the primary means of keeping track of your experiments, and they are instead being replaced by digital equivalents, such as wikis or some other, commercial software (which I unfortunately didn’t catch any names, but a google search brings up all kinds of examples). The advantages of such a “notebook” are clear: entirely searchable, easily referenced with hyperlinks, the ability to keep digital images and snippets of code, etc. There is also an advantage which hadn’t been discussed, but is something I’ve long thought about: legibility! If you’ve ever looked in another scientists notebook, you will quickly find that their writing may be atrocious (guilty as charged), and it quickly becomes an exercise in frustrating trying to interpret what was written.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this is being embraced in a big way by the big pharma companies, where it is crucial to have detailed records, and to keep them for a long time (something like the lifetime of a drug being sold + ten years). But there’s an advantage to graduate students in academic laboratories that hadn’t been addressed in the discussion, that came to me as I was talking about this to another grad student friend. It’s that of the copies. I graduated from SFU with my Master’s less than a year ago, but I could tell you basically no specific details on some of the more mundane, day to day experiments that I carried out. I’m sure the same thing happens to those who graduate with a PhD, and leave their lab notebooks behind. I’ve decided I want to keep this kind of information, and I’m still early enough in my PhD that it won’t be too hard to change.
To the other scientists reading this blog: have you changed to a digital lab notebook? Have you tried the switch and failed, or have things gone smoothly? What software did you decide on? I’m leaning towards a wiki, and I’ve decided it will be necessary to keep a paper notebook as well, but to make it degenerate information which will, at the end of every day, always end up in the digital notebook as well.