Maintaining a Useful Open Notebook

An open notebook is supposed to enhance the workflow of the researcher maintaining the record and provide the complete record of an experiment for others to follow and verify. Ideally, an open notebook would read like a well run blog: updated regularly, easy to follow, and contain a focused theme. Presented here are some aspects of open notebook science that should be kept in mind while notebooking.


It is erroneous to believe that any single technology will be self-contained and supporting system. Many notebooks contain a lot of supplemental information stored on different web platforms like Google Drive, figshare, SlideShare, and BenchFly for example. As such, the open notebook needs to be a versatile platform capable of changing functions as research needs arise. While it is difficult to predict what future needs will arise, ensure the ONS platform can be as flexible as possible. It is frustrating and time consuming to have to switch notebook platforms, start from scratch, reorganize, and potentially learn a new technology or at least become familiar with a new workflow.

Time Commitment (for more info see

Keeping an open/electronic notebook shouldn’t be time consuming, but don’t expect it to not require any time and attention. Most scientists keep a paper notebook with them in the lab and should maintain a detailed record of their experiments. Maintaining a good traditional notebook is time consuming, and potential open notebook scientists feel the need to maintain the open notebook in addition to the traditional paper notebook. A lot of time can be saved by developing a new workflow to be completely electronic, or as electronic as possible. Carry a laptop, tablet, or smartphone around and keep real-time notes via those mechanisms. Get used to documenting in the open notebook immediately, while the information is still sharp. It is imperative to do whatever is necessary to minimize the time spent maintaining a notebook, just keep it complete, readable, and up to date.


The most important feature of an open notebook is accessibility. The notebook must be accessible to the primary scientist (the one maintaining the record) and secondly should be accessible to others. This means that you should be able to access the information whenever and wherever you are so make sure you have a reliable hosting service. Accessibility is more than just being able to log onto a computer with internet. There is also the responsibility to ensure the information is easy to find as well. For this you will need to maintain an organized notebook and enable search indexing.

Most web platforms have an internal search feature, but the search feature is never as good as companies that focus strictly on search (see Google). By ensuring the notebook is search engine indexed you will help yourself and others in the long run. Personally speaking, I use Google to search my own notebook more frequently than I use my own notebook’s search feature.

Organizing a notebook goes hand in hand with searching. If a notebook is unorganized then it will be difficult to access important information. Platforms that support the tagging or categorization of notebook entries help a lot, and ones that list posts chronologically can help even more (blogging platforms). Organization is not strictly self-serving.

In web design, studies show (F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content, 2006) (Tarquini, 2007) (Friedman, 2008) that visitors will leave a site if relevant information is not found within a few seconds. The purpose of open notebook science is to provide relevant information to visitors. The goal is to get visitors to surf the notebook because it contains valuable scientific information that can increase the speed and efficiency of their research. If visitors cannot access that information, they will leave and the notebook will have failed its purpose.

Organization and search indexing are not the only means to accessibility. The open notebook needs to be thorough and contain all information that goes into an experiment or project. Writing in shorthand may save a little time and effort, but in the long run it won’t serve anyone. Make sure that everything is documented as best as possible. The time required isn’t much longer, and it will turn out that time is saved later because the notebook is thoroughly organized and complete.


The ability to document audience engagement in real-time as experiments are undertaken is the edge that open notebook science has over all other forms of scientific communication. Make sure the platform you choose has the ability to converse with others. Wikis have talk pages, blogs have commenting systems, and if notes are published via social media, the mechanisms for communication are native. Having access to criticism, support, questions, and comments in real-time can tremendously improve research. It’s not enough to provide access to conversation; you also need to actually engage in conversation. If there is no response to communiqués, then there is no incentive for the community to participate.

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