Module 2: Starting an open notebook

There are literally dozens of web platforms available that increase productivity, collaboration, communication, etc. And any of them could be a great platform for an open notebook, it just depends on what your preferred method of note taking is and what kind of research you do. I have not tried them all, but I have tried a lot of them, focusing on platforms that are freely available, very robust, and those which may have archival solutions. While technology is constantly improving, and the webscape is very dynamic, for open notebooks the best starter platform is WordPress.

It is for this reason we have launched ONSNetwork.org, which is a federated network of WordPress blogs designed with open notebooks in mind. And now that you’ve had some time to wrap your head around the concept of open notebook science, it’s time to dive in and start curating content for it.

Ideally your notebook would be a digital analog to the paper notebook you keep. Whatever information you would include there, you would want in your open notebook. For you, the notebook is a place that you would visit when you need to look up information regarding past experiments. For external users, the notebook is a place that allows them to see the entire progression of an experiment, for maximum scientific transparency.

When keeping an open notebook there are several things you should think about. First, how much or how little content would you like to make open? Open notebook science is not all or nothing, there is a spectrum of openness and it depends on the lab environment, the experiments, and your own personality. You may be perfectly comfortable sharing your entire scientific record. You may only be comfortable sharing certain protocols. You may want to share analyzed data, but only after publication. No matter your preference, the content you make available is totally up to you.

Second, you should consider eliminating all other forms of note taking. This isn’t to say that you will only keep information in your open notebook platform, but rather you want to eliminate double notes. If you keep a paper notebook, keep a laptop, tablet, or phone handy for notes. If you use a word processor consider moving your workflow to the cloud. Having to curate 2 notebooks is time consuming and ultimately your notes will suffer if you dread having to keep up with double the amount of work. Granted sometimes you just can’t avoid it, in this case you make your notebook work for you. For example, if you keep information in spreadsheets, make it easy for the information to be included in your notebook (ie using Google Docs and embedding the document, or linking to it).

Which brings us to consideration three, notebook entries are not publication worthy documents. You want to be able to write notes relatively quickly. Once you get in the habit of keeping electronic notes, the time spent messing around with options and tools significantly diminishes leaving you lots of time with your research. At the same time you need to be able to use your notes in the future. Shorthand notation can be helpful, but you need to make sure you are consistent. If future you can’t access the information then you’ve lost the entire benefit of the notebook. Keep this in mind as you start writing your first few entries. Even though no one knows you better than yourself, it will take some time to develop habits that allow you maximum efficiency in the lab, and ultimately that’s what you want.

And finally, fourth, try to post as frequently as possible. You may not need to post everyday, but when you are doing something in the lab you may want to document some part of it. Here frequency is important, because it will help you develop the habit of writing your information. The other thing to remember is that you don’t know what information future you will need, so posting frequently will help to prevent any information loss/need.

Now that you know what an open notebook is, you’ve thought about what you want to share, and you know some ONS best practices, it’s time to start publishing information!

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