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Why keeping a lab journal

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Work in progress for a future book

There are many reasons to keep a lab journal. Most information available tends to focus on two main topics: reproducibility and legal claims. However, a lab journal can be extremely helpful in other aspects, such as gaining insights, keeping track of progress, accountability, and they can be useful project management tools. Journals are a great for mindful productivity, but in scientific environments these practices tend to be overlooked.

Even though the first two reasons for keeping a lab journal are very valid, it is almost impossible to find someone who used a journal for these ends. Sadly, the other aspects of journaling, the ones that can easily improve the daily work of every researcher are much less discussed. We will start with the common topics, and then move to the more interesting ones.

1. Scientific Reproducibility

In science, it is crucial that people is able to build on the knowledge gained by others. And the only way of achieving it is if the basis is robust enough. If a researcher makes an observation, it is important that the same observation can be made by independent groups. This is called reproducibility: being able to obtain the same results through the same or improved experiments.

The only way of repeating a measurement is knowing exactly how that measurement was done. A lab journal is a central part in registering every step of a long process that sometimes it can span years and many different people. If, in the future, another scientist has trouble obtaining the same results, we could go to the journal and see what details may be missing. If someone claims that our results can't be reproduced, we can grab the journal and follow it step by step to prove that we are right.

If it is possible to access a detailed account of all the steps that a researcher took, we can follow the exact same ones and see whether the results are valid or not. This sounds far-fetched, and in most cases no one will go to the extreme of digging through old notes, not even the authors themselves. On the other hand, if its a legally binding claim for a patent, or for medically relevant results, people will go to great extremes to understand what went wrong.

2. Legal Claims

There is a known story regarding who was the first one to invent the telephone. Both Meucci and Bell had claims and the patent was awarded to the American. Only a century later it was recognized that Meucci developed the idea of the telephone earlier. And this was done by looking at the lab journals kept by both men and checking their dates.

Most researchers will never face legal disputes over their research. And if they do, probably the lab journal won't be the first place to check. However, there is always the what if. And journals are useful not only for proving who invented a new device. They can also be used to clarify claims that have a societal impact.

People working in environmental projects, for example, must be extremely cautions about recording what they are doing, because their results can easily shape country and world policies. If one of their results impacts on a corporation operations, there is a high chance that the science will be scrutinized. Therefore, the more transparent and solid the foundations, the easier the process will be for the scientist behind.

I think it is clear that for anybody working with medicine and biologically relevant results, the claims can go much beyond a possible patent. Someone who finds a negative effect for a drug, for instance, will face enormous pressure from pharmaceuticals. But also someone who develops a new drug that may challenge the status-quo.

In all cases, a lab journal has legal validity as any other piece of recorded evidence such as e-mails, or audio. They can be contested (lab journals can be fabricated) but if done properly, they can be a very robust body of work, much more than a paper. In any case, claims regarding the results could always be done again, and time-sensitive information probably can be reconstructed by other means.

3. Gaining Insights

Now that we covered the standard reasons to keep a lab journal, let's dig into other aspects that are more related to the actual scientific work. Researches, regardless of their fields, are always trying to push the boundaries of the knowledge of their communities. And the way of pushing this boundary is by gaining new insights. What a lot of people lack to acknowledge is that the lab journal is the first place to look for it.

A well-kept journal will be a repository not only of successful experiments, but also of failed ones. These are the ones no one reports on papers, but nonetheless can be of great value. Because, as your knowledge increases, the possible explanations for failed experiments can also become relevant. It is hard to know beforehand whether something will be of value in the future or not, but for sure the knowledge you'll have in 5 years from now is going to be much broader than the one you have today.

Scientists, especially at younger ages, also face the problem of lack of time. At some point you will have ideas of what and how to measure something. You may build an intuition about how to explain a phenomenon, but lack the resources to pursue it. There's also a chance you will forget about this fleeing moments. This is, unless you can read back what you wrote years before, on a rainy afternoon in which you are looking for inspiration.

4. Keeping Track of Progress

Pursuing a Ph.D., for example, is a process that takes much longer than anything else anyone has done before at that moment of their lives. Students go from managing processes that span at most 6 months to suddenly facing a cycle of 4 years or more. Such long projects can feel overwhelming and it is very easy to lose track of how much we have achieved in the past months or years.

Our minds are very bad at summarizing the experiences during long periods of time. If I ask you now, suddenly, what have you achieved in the last year, there's a chance you'll struggle to recall what have you done. Some things will be obvious, such as publishing a paper, or getting a grant. But the average work that gets done on a daily basis is very easy to overlook. It is also frequent to focus on the absolute highs or lows of a given period, but not on the average.

Journals in general, and specifically lab notebooks, are great tools to keep an overview of all the things that one does. You will immediately see during which months you generated more data, in which ones you struggled with the experiment. You will also be able to see the path that took you from one decision to the next, and how hard you worked to achieve it.

I have performed experiments that took more than 24 hours to generate what ultimately would be 6 data points on a plot. Adding all the failed attempts, computer crashes, water evaporating, someone cutting the power of the lab, it means it took me months to get the data I needed. It is this very slow, painstaking process that is extremely prone to being overlooked when asked about progress.

Many labs organize group meetings in which each one discusses what they have done in the past week or month. Not all groups organize them in the same way, but when the time comes to tell others, it is very easy to get blocked. What have you learned, where have you failed, in what would you need help, what are your plans. Going back through the summary of all you've done can give you a boost of confidence before presenting.

5. Accountability

Way too many research projects are very lonely. A PhD candidate may have a supervisor more or less present. Sometimes postdocs have their own funding and no supervisor to report to. In these cases, scientists have no accountability but with themselves. If they achieve something in a given week, it's only them that will celebrate it. If they struggle, is only them who would care.

Not all labs and groups work in the same way, but many projects are like that. A feeling transversal to scientists is the feeling of loneliness. Lab journals, even if it sounds too romanticized, can be your best friends. Your past voice can be an encouraging sound in troubled times. They can also be an anchor point when you struggle to identify the path to take.

Being accountable means that you must answer to someone regarding your actions. When working in longer term projects, there are many decisions that can be made, many paths that can be followed. How can you make sure you are following your original goals and that you have not diverged too much if no one is checking on you? If the goals and milestones are written on a journal, you can use your own voice to acknowledge when you are departing from your true route, or decide when it is time to abandon a goal because it will simply not work.

6. Project Management

The most important person to do project management is, probably, the person who does not work in the lab. I have seen PhD candidates and postdocs struggling to keep their projects running while they are mostly left alone. Project management has many different aspects, and it may be a stretch for a simple lab journal. Nonetheless it is important to keep an eye for opportunities of improvement.

A project can be defined as a planning consisting of objectives which are mutually related and coordinated. A PhD project, for example, will consist of several objectives, such as teaching a minimum amount of hours, taking a certain number of courses, obtaining results on specific topics, publishing a number of papers, presenting in conferences, writing a thesis, and defending it.

Even though some objectives seem completely disconnected, they all require your focus, energy, and time. While you are teaching perhaps you can't travel to a conference, for example. To add a complication, not all objectives can be achieved by you alone. Sometimes you need results from someone else, or you need someone to check your manuscript.

When other people is working towards the same goal, they are also called stakeholders. Their interests may not be the same, as is the case in collaborations that may lead to more than one publication that can benefit different people to different extents. A good project manager will make sure that all stakeholders are taken care of, that their interests are being met, and that their contributions are valued and taken into account.

Collaborations in academia are poorly defined. Sometimes because the goals are not clear, and sometimes because there can be a high degree of uncertainty. But quite often it is because there is no interest in being the manager of a collaboration. However, not having clear expectations such as who is going to be the first author of a potential publication, intermediate achievements to check progress, setting meetings, etc.

Conclusions

The reasons for having a lab journal are many, and probably there are many more that I have skipped. However, all this is pure theory that must be put into practice. The next few sections will focus on how to get started with a journal.


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