The benefit of a lab book

I always though that use of a lab book—a dedicated space to note down experimental methods, results etc.—was largely restricted to sciences like chemistry or physics, where one might conduct several experiments per week, and thus tracking progress is essential lest you lose your train of thought. What role do they have in psychology, where the pace of experimentation—both of the experiment itself and the time between each experiment—is arguably much more sedate?

Since January this year I’ve been keeping my own lab book, and it has boosted organisation of my thoughts and progress considerably. It’s just a simple word document, organised by themes. I have chapters titled “Experiments”,  “Models”, and “Research Ideas”. It has a table of contents, list of figures, and list of tables. It also has a references section. Its layout is very much like a thesis.

Now, in one place, I log all of my experiments in as much detail as I would in a paper submission (minus the protracted introduction & discussion). Usually I would write up only those experiments which “worked”, in that I would be preparing them for rejection submission, but it has been a revelation writing up all of my experiments. All of them were important enough to me to run; all were sufficiently powered and—in my opinion—sufficiently designed to address a question I have, so why not write them up somewhere? It’s better than letting the data rot in an electronic file drawer.

Keeping everything in one place has made me feel much more in control of my work. The enhanced feeling of organisation having one lab book is liberating. I carry a dictaphone around with me in case I have thoughts whilst in a situation I can’t write in; now, I put the audio file in dropbox and have an entry to my lab book with a link to this file. I also carry a small note book around with me; instead of keeping notes contained in this book, I can take a snapshot with my smartphone and enter the photo as a figure in my lab book. 

It also gives me a feeling of accomplishment. Academia is famed for delayed rewards (if they come at all), so it is nice to be able to look back and see that I have made some progress, even if most of it will never see the light of day. Science is a cumulative process, and the steps that make this progress are small, and often made behind closed doors; published work doesn’t always reflect these small steps, so I like having a permanent record of mine.  

The greatest benefit has come from organising the modelling work which I try to do. Modelling requires a lot of tedious steps, most of which get scrubbed from final reports: what did you try first that didn’t work? What tests did you do to check the model code was bug-free? Did you do parameter-recovery simulations? What about testing for model mimicry and model-recovery simulations? Each of these steps require new scripts of code, new parameters, and new data. Before now, I would continuously update one script to cover all of these stages, and the final script would be long and complex with little acknowledgement of its heritage. I would know that I’ve conducted these stages, but I wouldn’t log the results anywhere. I would just “know” that they are complete. Now, I log each of these stages—and their results—in my lab book, together with links to archived code for each stage. This makes the process much cleaner, and I feel more confident about the final product.

Open Lab Book?

One step I have not yet had the confidence to take is to go open; open lab books are those which are kept “live” on the internet, so others can see. Wikipedia has a great section on open lab books with links to examples from other sciences. 

I see many advantages to this: notably, science is—or at least, should be—an open dialogue, so why not let others see what I’m doing? Perhaps I would get some comments/ideas that aid my research. Of course, there is the fear of being “scooped”, but I don’t think this is a fear worth entertaining (at least, not for the work I do). What puts me off doing it is it would change the way I write in my lab book. By writing just for me, I can be more economical with explanations. I can also be free to be more informal with my thoughts (“Why didn’t that bloody experiment work?”). And yes, I can also hide some of the awful ideas I have.

I prefer to use my lab book primarily as a way to organise my thoughts. With increasing demands on my time, the organisational boost it has brought has been worth its weight in gold. I’m also looking forward to looking back in 5 years’ time at all the work I have done. 

Try it! 

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2 comments

  1. I had a lab notebook during my PhD and found it very useful. It was actually a paper notebook, but I was worried about losing it so I periodically scanned the pages to save them. I’ve recently made the switch to electronic so I can access it anywhere via dropbox (and obviously it’s easier to edit and rearrange stuff), but I hadn’t thought of formatting it with subsections and TOCs etc. but that sounds fab, I’ll try it! Thanks 🙂
    P.S. It is fun to read back now

    1. Awesome! I’ve found it really useful. I mainly use it for my simulations etc. as there are typically many stages that I go through whilst programming, and it’s a good place to log the outcomes of manipulation checks along the way!

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