Like a new year, I think that there’s something optimistic about a new notebook. Also like a new year, a notebook is just a continuation of what’s come before, for better or for worse. Whenever I reach the end of either the year or a notebook, I keep trying to improve how I use my time in each.
I believe that good writing is editing; though the reader needs to be shown our ideas and their justification, no ones wants to see the scaffolding and other interim steps that it took to get to our conclusions. I really like using my laptop for drafting, of course, but the notebook is important for “thinking out loud” or free-writing. But not all scientific thinking is public writing.
Scientific notebooks are semi-public. We keep track of our methods and primary results in our notebooks. They are usually left in the lab, even after we leave a research group. (Technically, in labs that are funded by the National Science Foundation, the notebooks belong to NSF.) We write in pen. We date every entry, and every page. There are no empty pages. There’s always a temptation to erase or pull out pages, but a real lab notebook has a sewn binding and is a record how we did a particular protocol and what actually happened, whether it worked or not. My students often have issues with “doing it wrong” and want to write in pencil. This actually helps us to do more work—mistakes get repeated if no one every records that a reagent or protocol didn’t work. Negative results aren’t bad; they’re a part of the process of doing science.
The laboratory notebook is a standard part of the scientific process, but for some reason it was never really a part of my personal training in graduate school. At the time, it seemed, unlike my friends in molecular/cellular labs, that all my data went straight to a spreadsheet on my computer, so what was the point of the notebook? As I’ve been other places and had friends in different disciplines in science, I’ve come to realize that the notebook is partly for data collection—particularly in the field and the laboratory—but it’s also for thinking out loud.
A little freewriting and some data about the effectiveness of study podcasts on exam performance in Anatomy & Physiology.
I recommend two recent books about keeping journals. The first is the lavishly subtitled Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight and Positive Change. This includes narrative and examples about using the journal: for personal or professional writing, for maintaining a record of administrative responsibilities (as a department chair or group leader, for example), or as a tool for teaching.
It was in this book that I first came across the practice of meta-reflection, which one reads over earlier entries and then free-writes on trends seen there. For example, by doing this I realized that I wrote a lot about starting projects, but not as much about finishing them. The meta-reflection can help to quantify the wispy ideas that come out from regular free-writing, and in my case, prompt some change.
A second book I read about journaling was Michael Canfield’s fascinating Field Notes on Science and Nature, which opens up the field journals of ecologists, wildlife biologists, anthropologists, and others whose data are observations in nature. Each chapter is by a different author, who shows that their individual practices of keeping a journal vary by the kind of research they do and by personal preference. Each of the authors demonstrates how their journal fits into their workflow for doing science. The book reproduces specimens of journals that include narrative with simple sketches, more elaborate line or color sketches, photographs, and other ways to record data and impressions of observations. The volume is closed by a chapter that includes best practices of fieldwork journal-keeping.
“A typical notebook page detailing the thoughts and events of a day doing fieldwork at Olorgesailie, Kenya, with a personal note near the end of the page about the joy of being alone with rocks.”
Kay Behrensmeyer, in the chapter Linking Researchers Across Generations
A couple of ideas I found here, though intuitive, were actually new to me, and I share them with my lab members and students in my writing course. First: back those journals up! We make backups of our important computer files, and notebooks are no different. Most smartphones have cameras that are up to the task—photographing them this way allows me to have all my notebooks on my laptop, should I need to refer to older work. I also ask my lab members to back up their notebooks to our shared space on dropbox. This way they can keep their notebooks but I can still access their work that didn’t make it into posters or other presentations.
Second: the date ties all formats together. Photos on film, notebook entries, data spreadsheets, manuscript drafts…all these are tied together by the date. I don’t tend to print and tape spreadsheets into my paper notebook, but the dated journal back-ups and all the other files are all united on my laptop. And all my files are backed up online.
For me, the notebook is about discipline. It doesn’t take up much space and requires no batteries. It is the simplest way I have to keep touch with my ideas and the ideas that my students have on the projects that we work on together.