Those of us who have worked in experimental research will know the importance of keeping a lab notebook. It is the vital record that allows us to remember each step in an experimental procedure; it is the rawest of the raw data that research is built upon. With the news yesterday of the rediscovery of one of Sir Isaac Newton’s hand written lab notebooks, it seem timely that in a recent paper published in the open access Journal of Cheminformatics, researchers at Southampton University take a look at what effect different methods of recording data have on being able to recall chemistry experiments.
The paper, “Effects of using structured templates for recalling chemistry experiments” by Cerys Willoughby, Thomas Logothetis and Jeremy Frey, was chosen by Science as one of their “Editors’ Choice” picks from other journals in today’s issue of the journal.
We asked to Prof. Frey to give us a bit of background into his paper:
“Digitalization is revolutionizing scientific practice, and has the potential to bring significant value to the creation of scientific records for both researchers and the scientific community as a whole. Traditionally, scientists record their experiments onto blank pages in paper notebooks, where they can record whatever they like, but Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELNs) typically provide form-like templates. We set out to explore how the design of interfaces for ELNs impacts what researchers record, and found ourselves examining the art of asking the right questions.
We set out to explore how the design of interfaces for ELNs impacts what researchers record, and found ourselves examining the art of asking the right questions.”
The notes we capture form the basis of the scientific record and although data and results tends to dominate discussion in scientific discovery, capturing the process that created the data is paramount for understanding and repeatability. The steps in the process alone do not make an experiment repeatable—elements of the actual experience of the experiment and ‘tacit’ knowledge, such as decisions that were made, changes to the original design, and observations made are needed to understand what happened in an experiment and why. Any information we fail to write down is not only unavailable for the benefit of others, but risks being lost forever as our memories fade.
As we anticipated using templates do have a significant impact on what information is recorded both positive and negative. Asking the right questions can undoubtedly improve the experiment record by prompting the recording of information that researchers would otherwise have forgotten to record.
The way that widely used chemistry information systems are designed can have a huge impact on research productivity and reusability of information”
co-Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Cheminformatics
On the flip side we found asking the wrong question can cause significant problems from confusion and the recording of information that is irrelevant, a loss of the personal experience of the experiment that provides essential context to the process, and even a negative impact on the way that an experiment was conducted. Our studies suggest that templates can be valuable for improving the scientific record but providing flexibility through customizable ‘hybrid’ templates may be an effective way to overcome the negative aspects of template use.”
On publication of the paper, Professor David Wild, co-Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Cheminformatics, said “the way that widely used chemistry information systems are designed can have a huge impact on research productivity and reusability of information. In the Journal of Cheminformatics we care not just about core methods, but how cheminformatics impacts society at large. We are thus delighted to publish this highly insightful paper that will help better information systems to be developed in the future.”