This was a common phrase used by my previous supervisor during my master’s degree. Let me give you a scenario to put this in perspective.
So, you start in a lab as a graduate student or postdoc and your principal investigator assigns you a project which was based on work from a previous researcher. After spending hours reviewing the work of your previous colleagues, you find their work hard to follow and/or understand. How about sourcing their lost lab books? Sound familiar? It does to me.
After spending five years in graduate school and reviewing many lab books (or lack thereof) and theses, I found the most common mistake is that graduate students tend to keep poor track of or create irreproducible documents. Time and time again, when we read these incomplete documents we run into the issue of trying to understand either unclear procedures or data that make no sense. Giving the benefit of the doubt to the person doing the work, probably makes a lot of sense.
However, for those following the work, deciphering these documents can be a daunting task. This is where we, as scientists, need to be more rigorous in putting together scientific data. We can achieve this by making sure we “cross our t’s and dot our i’s” to make our work more legible, clear and reproducible to the next general of researchers.
So how do we fix this? May I make a proposition? Well, this is a challenging task as everyone has their own style of formatting and writing. One of things I’ve seen as of late are electronic lab books called e-lab books. This is something being adopted by more and more companies as well as institutes.
Now, I already hear the roar of backlash as many scientists may have reasons to boycott this option. I am sure there are solutions out there to overcome some of their concerns. We can all agree that the typed text in a Word document is easier to read than someone’s handwriting. Similarly, creating a molecular structure drawn in Chemdraw is more legible than a hand-drawn one.
As a chemist, I love the idea of having an electronic document containing procedures, images and spectroscopic data in one legible file. Hopefully, the use of e-lab books will be ubiquitous in the future as I firmly believe this will help with the issues mentioned above. Until then, keep your notes clear and concise, and remember to cross those t’s and dot those i’s! Rest assured, anyone reading your document will greatly appreciate that.
Ali Nejatie, M.Sc., is a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and a communications officer with the GlycoNet Trainee Association – Executive Committee. He is also a member of the Bennet Research Group at SFU.