Requirements of a Lab Journal

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I have been using and reflecting about lab journals for more than 10 years

A lab journal is a document with a lifetime often longer than the time a researcher spends in the lab. Therefore, a lab journal must posses some qualities to ensure that it will be accessible years after researchers have continued with their careers. To guarantee this, the lab journal must have some minimum properties.

Must be written in the common language of the lab

Although this seems like a trivial thing to note, many labs boasts a very international community. Researchers have different native tongues and will feel, sometimes, compelled to keep a journal in it. This will not work fine, because lab journals are not personal, they are meant to be used also by others in the future.

The language in which a lab journal is written must be the common language in the lab. If the lab is in Argentina and the entire group speaks Spanish, it is reasonable to keep a journal in Spanish. But if one of those researchers move to a different country, say, The Netherlands, and the group speaks English among themselves, then the journal must be kept in English.

For researchers willing to publish papers, writing the journal in the same language than the target publication is normally handy, but not necessary. It is common that the lab journal serves as a trigger for the content of a publication, but it is not always the case. If it is already in the proper language, the transfer can be immediate without the need of the extra translating step.

Must be accessible

Accessible has many different connotations. In this context it means that it should be possible for a colleague (present or future) to retrieve the content of the journal. If we decide to keep a journal like Da Vinci did, people won't be able to understand what we wrote down and the content will be useless. This does not only mean that we should write clearly, it also means that others should know where the journal is.

In one of the labs where I worked, there was a closet that couldn't be opened. The doors were locked and no one wondered what was inside. I guess this is something that happens when the same group works in the same space for decades and it is not clear who is responsible for which door. One day I managed to get a master key to take a look at what was inside. To my surprise, I found among other things, lab journals dated more than two decades before my time.

It is likely that no one ever needed to take a look at those journals, or if they did they resigned after trying to find them for a while. This defeats the purpose of having (and storing) a lab journal. If you don't know where to find it, it is the same as not having it at all. Therefore, having a library of lab journals, or at least a clear place were to store them is a must for any group.

Paper vs Digital

There may be many discussions regarding whether lab journals should or not be kept in digital format. The core of all is to know whether the journal will be accessible after the person leaves the lab. If you own a tablet and like taking notes on it and keeping your journal using an app that someone recommended, it is fair to wonder what would happen if you move away from the lab. How can someone else access those notes without your tablet?

Moreover, what would happen if in 2 years the company making the app goes bankrupt and there's no more support for the newer operating systems? The best way of keeping a digital journal is by using standards. For example, plain text files should be robust enough, but then you miss the nice features of the digital support. We could assume PDF or image formats such as PNG or TIFF can be a long-term solution.

Using a paper journal avoids all the accessibility concerns. I have books that were written before I was even born, but the school assignments I wrote using some version of Word in the 90's are long gone. On the other hand, I found in a drawer my grandfather's homework assignments. If you ask me today, there is no digital replacement for paper as the source material.

Must be durable

If we want our journal to be accessible for years to come, we must ensure that it is also durable. If we talk about a digital file, we all know that a corrupt hard drive or a virus can destroy years of work in an instant. In the same way we learned to backup digital assets, we should have a strategy for back-upping paper lab journals. Fire, flood, burglary, are some of the reasons that can destroy a journal.

I think the best approach to ensure the durability of a journal is by having copies of it stored in different places. Fortunately, scanners are ubiquitous. We can scan the journals periodically and store the digital copy somewhere safe, preferably on a computer that is not susceptible to the same disgraces than the paper journal. Most universities and labs have shared network drives that are good enough for these purposes.

As discussed earlier, it should be clear not only where the journals are, but also where the backups are located. Even if we are organized, over time it may happened that a colleague misplaces the journal and we will have to resort to the backups. I have seen groups that have shared folders to place the scanned documents, and if they prevent modifying the files after they were created then it is pretty safe for long-term archival.

Must be inalterable

This is one of the hardest topics. Since a lab journal can be used as the source of truth for legal purposes, one of its characteristics is that it should not be possible to alter it. If we can back-date our findings, the value of the journal as proof drops to zero. This is one of the reasons why lab journals are bound and the pages are numbered. Spiral notebooks are not useful because it is trivial to add (or remove) pages wherever we need.

This is not infallible, though, we can always buy a new book and re-write it entirely, changing the dates or results in our favor. This is why in some places journals are signed and dated by more than one person at the end of the day. It does not mean that the person signing is responsible for what is written, it is just marking that everything that is there was written before a given date. It is still not perfect, but it adds credibility.

Except some specialized software, digital document editing is not meant to be inalterable but the opposite. Although this idea is in favor of the paper journal, it is important to note that technology allows us to sign and date documents to prove they were not altered. The problem is that these solutions are not implemented with lab journals in mind and therefore they become cumbersome to work with.

A natural solution to this problem is the blockchain. By having a distributed network of sources of truth then someone looking into a lab journal will not rely on a couple of signatures on a page, but on several, perhaps hundreds, of machines claiming that the entry was written on a given day and has not been modified since then.

The combination of a paper journal and a scanned copy stored on a network drive give enough forensic information as to have a great deal of credibility. But, the question always remains, what would happen if the absence of the journal is in benefit of the researcher. Erasing information (i.e. throwing a way the journal) leaves almost no traces. Hopefully, you will never be in that spot.

tags: #lab-journal


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Aquiles Carattino
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