I’ve been talking a lot about documentation on this blog over the last few months but there is definitely one more issue I need to address before we move onto other topics: taking better notes. Taking better notes is really at the heart of improving your documentation because this is the main way that researchers document their work.
To review, having sufficient documentation is central to making your data usable and reusable. If you don’t write things down, you’re likely to forget important details over time and not be able to interpret a dataset. This is most apparent for data that needs to be used a year or more after collection, but can also impact the usability of data you acquired last week. In short, you need to know the context of your research data – such as sample information, protocol used, collection method, etc. – in order to use it properly.
All of this context starts with the information you record while collecting data. And for most researchers, this means taking better notes.
Most scientists learn to take good notes in school, but it’s always worth having a refresher on this important skill. Good research notes are following:
- Clear and concise
- Well organized
- Easy to follow
- Reproducible by someone “skilled in the art”
Basically, someone should be able pick up your notes and be able to tell what you did without asking you for more information.
The problem a lot of people run into is not recording enough information. If you read laboratory notebook guidelines (which were established to help prove patents), they actually say that you should record any and all information relating to you research in your notebook. That includes research ideas, data, when and where you spoke about your research, references to the literature, etc. The more you record in your notebook, the easier it is to follow your train of thought.
I would also recommend employing headers, tables, and any other tool that helps you avoid having a solid block of text. These methods can not only help you better organize your information, but make it easier for you to scan through everything later. And don’t forget to record the units on any measurements!
Overall, there is no silver bullet to make you notes better. Rather, you should focus on taking thorough notes and practice good note taking skills. It also helps to have another person look over your notes and give you feedback for clarity. Use whatever methods work best for you so long as you are taking complete notes.
Research notebooks have been used for hundreds of years. We can still refer to Michael Faraday’s meticulous notes or read Charles Darwin’s observations that lead to the theory of evolution. These documents show that handwritten research notes have been and will continue to be useful. But to get the most out of your research notes, you need to start by taking better notes.
I challenge you this month to think about your research notes and work to take clearer, more consistent, and more thorough notes. Your ultimate goal is to make sure you have all of the documentation you need for whenever you use your data.