In my last post, I discussed my philosophy on documentation in that most researchers need to take better notes and augment them with a few key types of documentation, as needed. I’ve already blogged about a few of these special documentation types – data dictionaries, README.txt files, and e-lab notebooks – but one structure we haven’t examined here is templates. Let’s correct that now.

Templates are one of my favorite recommendations for adding structure to research notes and making sure that you’ve recorded all of the necessary information. They coopt the benefits of a formal metadata schema – making documentation easy to search across, helping you record all essential information, and providing consistency – without all of the fiddliness or rigidity. This makes templates much easier to adopt and use.

So how do templates work? Basically, you sit down at the start of data collection and make a list of all the information that you have to record each time you acquire a particular dataset. Then you use this as a checklist whenever you collect that type of data. That’s it.

You can use templates as a worksheet or just keep a print out by your computer or in the front of your research notebook, whatever works best for you. Basically, you just want to have the template around to remind you of what to record about your data.

Let’s look at an example. When I was a practicing chemist, there were a few critical pieces of information I needed to record every time I ran an experiment. This list included the following:

  • Date
  • Experiment
  • Scan number
  • Laser beam powers
  • Laser beam wavelengths
  • Sample concentration
  • Calibration factors, like timing and beam size

Using this list as a template, I would then record the necessary information every time I did an experiment. The result might look something like the following:

  • 2010-06-05
  • UV pump/visible probe transient absorption spectroscopy
  • Scan #3
  • 5 mW UV, visible beam is too weak to measure accurately
  • 266 nm UV, ~400-1000 nm visible
  • 5 mMol trans-stilbene in hexane
  • UV beam is 4 microns, visible beam is 3 microns

Basically, the list is memory aid to make sure my notes include everything they should for any given experiment. And I could even use different templates for different types of experiments to be more thorough.

Remembering to record the necessary details is the biggest benefit of using a template, as this is an easy mistake to make in documentation. Templates can also help you sort through handwritten notes if you always put the same information in the same place on a notebook page. Basically, templates are a way to add consistency to often chaotic research notes.

I challenge you to try out a template or two and see if they help you record the better notes. Because, as I’ve said before, research data without documentation are useless and, honestly, having insufficient documentation can be just as frustrating. So make your data better by using a template!

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