Are you maintaining a lab notebook or a journal? Have you given up on it? Or do you sometimes wonder if the hassles really are worth the supposed payoffs? Do you wish you could do a better job at it? In this post, I'll go over all the benefits of a lab notebook. It turns out, there are a lot! I will then explain how Findings can help you reap these benefits with very little work, maybe even having fun in the process.
Minutes, years and everything in between
The lab notebook is a fascinating tool because it is useful at very different time scales. In fact, one of the challenges of keeping good records is to make it work at all these different levels.
A lab notebook is where you write what your day-to-day activity, as you do it. This has instant benefits. Your notes help you keep track of your current task, whether it's an experiment at the bench, a computational run, a new theory, a bibliographic research, etc. Your lab journal then acts as a memory aid and a daily activity guide. It helps you answer questions about the immediate past and future: which reagent do I need to add, where are the computation results stored, when did I start this incubation,...?
Crucially, the content of your lab notebook continues to be useful days and weeks after you wrote things down. You may need to repeat a procedure, check where you stored some samples, or remember this brilliant idea you had a month ago. Your lab notebook becomes a project management tool, linking together multiple experiments, including both the 'why' and the 'how' it was done. As weeks go by, the details of your work fade from memory, but your lab notebook keeps everything connected and consistent.
Beyond a few weeks, your notebook starts to also be useful to others. First, a well-maintained lab notebook is an invaluable resource when comes the time to publish your work. It brings together the experimental details, the observations you made and the raw data you generated. In addition, your lab notebook becomes a reference to reproduce and re-use your work. Your results becomes the basis of new projects and new research directions, and some details buried in your lab notebook may become critical to you or collaborators. Hopefully, it's in there!
Once your work is published and you have moved on to new projects, maybe even to a new place, your lab notebook still has a role to play. The first has to do with accountability: your lab notebook is a way to audit your contribution to a project or a publication; it gives your work some "tracability". With all the recent debates around scientific fraud and reproducibility, many institutions are paying a lot of attention (and money) to this concept.
Then of course, there is the issue of intellectual property. The recent move from "first to invent" to "first to file" in the US has reduced the importance of lab notebook for patents, but it still has an important role to play, in particular in establishing ownership of inventions and processes.
The perfect notebook
The above should make it clear that producing the perfect lab notebook is a very challenging task. Your notes should have all the details of what you did, when (and maybe where), including the list of the inputs and reagents you used, as well as any unusual details. It should also clearly link the steps you followed to the results you obtained, with an unambiguous way to get to the raw data if needed. Your lab notebook should include the processed results, the conclusions you draw from them, and how that relates to previous results and your project. Connections between experiments, ideas you have, directions you take: everything should be included, verified, dated, signed, and readable by your future self, any present and future colleague, and posterity.
But here is the kicker: most of the content of a lab notebook will not be looked at again. Ever. What makes it worthwhile are the unpredictable 2% (give or take) that turn out to be really really useful.
Findings to the rescue!
When designing Findings, we had 3 simple ideas to make it possible (and even easy) to create a perfect lab notebook:
- Provide instant benefits that make it useful for your daily work.
- Make it easy and fun to use.
- Provide long-term benefits without any additional work.
Points 1 and 2 is what defines Findings as a productivity app. Findings makes you more productive and efficient: you end up doing more than before, in less time, and with more enjoyment. If we do a good job at it, you'll be hooked.
Point 3 is where the magic happens. Without you even realizing, the small amount of work you put every day in Findings is also an investement in the future. All the long-term benefits of a well-maintained lab notebook will be ready for you to reap when the time comes. If we do a good job at that part, you'll soon be worshipped by your colleagues and peers.
Let's go over the features that allow Findings to perform its magic...
The Experimental Narrative
Experiments form the foundations of Findings. They give a context to your daily work and connect your tasks over multiple days. They make it easier to switch between projects without losing track of your different activities. That's a benefit you can very quickly feel when using Findings.
Thinking in terms of experiments also naturally lead you to better plan your work and to place each experiment in the larger context of a research project. Findings invites you to optionally add some simple metadata: title, aims, rating. The few minutes you may spend on this will help you answer simple questions about your work: what question am I trying to answer, what do I know so far, should I explore this result more? You'll naturally follow the "experiment narrative": hypothesis, experiment, conclusion, hypothesis. Importantly, all of this happens naturally (and when it does not make sense, there is nothing forcing you to follow any predefined rigid structure). Over time, the benefits will add up.
Protocols and Notes: the devil is in the details
Protocols in Findings are useful to write down experimental details that you keep repeating. In fact, a better name for protocols could be "templates" (but that's for another blog post!). You can use Findings without protocols, but using them is very easy: you just drag them inside an experiment using the calendar view. Once inserted, the content of the protocol is a copy of the original, that can be modified as needed to accomodate the small changes you may make to the procedure. Findings makes it very easy to include all the details that may make a difference when you look at an experiment again, months later.
For more unusual events, you can also insert notes, wherever it's needed, and in the right context.
One of the biggest strength of Findings, and also one easy to overlook, is the ability to insert any file, directly where they belong, within the experiment that produced it. The first benefit is straightforward: you will never lose that file, because it is stored for you by Findings, within your library, in a place that nothing else will disturb. All you need to worry about is backing up your computer. But even more importantly, you will never wonder what it is, because it is surrounded by all the experimental details and notes that help produce the results within it. You do not need to worry how to name it, or where it is stored. You just need to focus on writing the right amount of detail to annotate its contents.
History of Changes
Behind the scenes, Findings is keeping a full history of your changes with the corresponding timestamps. This is part of the open-source file format we use, called PARStore, which you can check out on github. This history is not exposed yet in the user interface, but it's something we will integrate in a future version. The data is there, though, and will provide an official audit trail that you are already building without you having to do anything for it.
I have only highlighted here some of the most important aspects of Findings, and this post is already too long. There are many other elements of Findings that conspire to build long-term benefits into your electronic lab notebook. There are also many more features coming that will help you leverage those benefits. If you have not already, be sure to sign up to our mailing list to be notified about new features and major updates (we typically send an email every 1-2 months). You can also follow @findingsapp on Twitter or our Facebook page. And feel free to let me know if you have more thoughts on lab notebooks or on how we can further improve the app by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is hoping I have inspired you to take on new resolutions for your lab notebook in 2015. The good news is: with Findings, it's never been easier to get it right!