Why keeping a lab journal
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, and some useful project management. Journals are a great tool for mindful productivity, but in scientific environments these practices tend to be overlooked.
When we discuss about reproducibility we can be referring to slightly different things. On the one hand, the broadest topic of concern, related to the possibility of achieving the same results in an independent lab. It is in this context that people started talking about the reproducibility crisis since many (if not most) of psychological results can't be repeated. If a result can't be observed again it means that the claims of the original work are wrong and the publication should be retracted.
There are many reasons why results are not reproducible. On the one hand it may be due to having access to a small sample. Larger studies may find that the correlations we used to explain the phenomenon are not present, but it does not mean we did anything wrong per-se. The other possibility is that we made a mistake in our analysis, or that the sample was somehow biased. The only way to know whether there was something wrong is if someone can see the entire documentation of what we did in the past.
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 equivalent or not. I know this sounds far-fetched, and in most cases no one will go to the extreme of digging through old notes, but 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.
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 latter. It was only a century later that 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.
Even if the story of the telephone is colorful, it proves the point of why lab journals are important. It is safe to say that there is a gigantic chance that your journal will not be used in legal claims, but 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. Of course it can be contested (lab journals can be fabricated) but they tend to be a very robust body of work (much more than a paper). In any case the experiments can be performed again by an independent body just to corroborate the initial claims.
Now that we covered the standard reasons to keep a lab journal, let's dig into other aspects that are more related to 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 of not only 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.
Keeping Track of Progress
Pursuing a Ph.D., for example, is a process that takes much longer than anything else anyone has done before. 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.
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 progress that is extremely prone to being overlooked when asked about progress.
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