The Evolution of the Scientist’s Notebook

The scientist’s notebook has gone from diaries, to books and now to digital clouds, but what is being recorded and what stories are we telling?

Last month, I had the great pleasure of presenting on Electronic Lab Notebooks at the Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group Meeting – The Development of a Chemist’s Notebook. This event was a fascinating tour through history, starting in the 17th Century examining the work diaries of Robert Boyle, moving through the 19th Century to consider notebooks of Charles Darwin, Humphry Davy, and Michael Faraday. Next, we broached the 20th Century to explore the works of Linus Pauling, and then finally we catapulted into the 21st Century to discuss not only the current state of the Electronic Lab Notebook but also to look forward to the future.

This meeting deeply captured my interest because it not only discussed the work of renowned chemists across the centuries, but it demonstrated how much our lab notebooks have evolved. However, it also raised the question of whether we might have lost something along the way in our progress, but that is something for you, dear reader, to decide after you have heard my story.

The first thing that struck me was the different names used for these notebooks. You might note above that Boyle’s workings were referred to as “work diaries,” and similarly, Faraday’s notebooks as his “diary,” which paints a different picture than a “lab notebook” or any digital form. The diary element suggests a capture of more than just the scientific record, offering a more personal insight into the times of their scientific discoveries.

Davy’s and Darwin’s works are often referred to simply as their “Notebooks,” which implies something different from today’s lab books. Over the years of my own studies, I’ve noticed Electronic Lab Notebooks morphing into “Digital Research Notebooks” or “Digital Tools.” This suggests that the nature of these notes has evolved over the years, from a freer form stream of consciousness to a more structured formal record of scientific research. Recent student paper lab notebooks are incredibly structured with pre-printed COSHH forms that must be filled in and signed off, including formal pre-experiment plans and detailed post-experiment write-ups.

Now, you might think this sounds sensible, wanting more formal records, health, and safety information, plans, and write-ups. What could possibly be negative about this progression? Of course, we do need to be safe and more formal in our research so that it is reproducible and reusable (see my first article on FAIR data).

However, if you look back at what was recorded in these older diaries and notebooks, a lot of interesting information was also recorded alongside the science. For example, Boyle’s diaries contained records of conversations with travellers and notes on his readings in addition to his scientific work. Davy’s notebooks contained great works of poetry discovered when his notebooks were examined and transcribed. Faraday’s notebooks, while not containing poetry, documented his experiments in great detail in a narrative style, noting where experiments were unsuccessful—a rarity admitted by modern-day scientists. Darwin’s notebooks were amazingly organized, each paragraph numbered and summarized for easy searching, showing an early example of a proper indexing system, which many modern-day notebooks lack. Even Linus Pauling’s notebooks, which were more modern, contained musings and thoughts around and outside of the scientific research.

This may lead you to think that because these scientists recorded a greater depth of research, they did a better job of producing reproducible research. Unfortunately, this isn’t a straight yes, although it is an interesting question. If you think back to my FAIR data article where I posed the question, “If I gave you this could you reproduce my work?” Well, these notebooks were very informative and clearly provided enough information to base much of the foundations underpinning science today. However, despite this attention to detail, it is still reported that the information recorded in some of these notebooks was still mismatched from their associated publications, which is still an issue we face today.

So why am I telling you this? We still have a misalignment between what is recorded in a scientist’s lab notebook and what is published, so does it really matter how things have changed? I think so, for two reasons. Firstly, with the additional musings and sidenotes that came with some of these notebooks, more of the story and context surrounding the research was potentially captured in days gone by. This is vitally important as it is often the contextual information that remains in scientists’ heads and never gets put onto paper or into print. Secondly, there are clear descriptions of experiments that haven’t worked that, due to the huge efforts to digitize and make these notes available to the public, are now accessible to the wider scientific community.

While I understand the need for formality, structure, and standardization in capturing our scientific research, and the necessity to capture it electronically for preservation, I can’t help feeling like we are missing some of the more personal aspects of our modern-day scientists. Their stories, their travels, their anecdotes for what led them to scientific discoveries or directions in the first place, and potentially rich and imaginative poetry. I’m not sure the Electronic Lab Notebook is the place for this, and indeed many scientists I have spoken to have noted that they wouldn’t think of writing down personal notes or even notes of a more informal nature in a structured electronic system, but I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the overall story. We need to think about how to capture these more personal aspects of scientists’ thinking, either through blogs or other more informal mechanisms, or even through articles such as this.

After all, think about this: if you become a famous scientist and people are looking back over your work 100 years from now, do you want your only personal musings to be scraped from a Facebook or Twitter archive? Or do you want to leave a more longstanding legacy about the person behind the science?

Samantha Pearman-Kanza

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