Open Science: Who Owns Your Work?

Time to experiment: Go back to your lab notebook to experiments you worked on 3 or 4 months ago. Are they properly documented? YES, say you. Well, I ask that you give your notebook to a fellow lab member let him figure it out - don’t help. Ask him questions about your experiments: Why did you do it? What were the controls? What are the results? How would he interpret them? You can do the same for his work.

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I never tried it.

We work alone most of the time. Although the language is the same - we develop our own dialect. Things that look obvious for us are not necessarily all that clear to others.

Why? You might ask - it is my work - why should anyone else read it? Why should anyone else care how I document? How I label? Where I store my stuff?

The answer for me is clear: Although you own your work, it is not really yours. Although you are working solo, you are not alone. There is a PI that will need your results, to write a grant, to write a paper. There are future team members that will want to refer to your work and if you are good, your work should have an impact. Your results can be a stepping stone to more discoveries. Your sample might be useful in other experiments.

Building the right attitude in the lab is hard.

It starts on the bench (not when the experiments are published), it starts when the Principal Investigator builds a culture of validation and proper documentation, of openness and good criticism. Just see the twitter hashtag #BadAdvisorStories to see how bad PIs can be at this...

Short story: When I finished my work in the lab and sat with my PI he stated that he thought I'm "over-documenting". I can understand his perspective. It was important for me to be able to read an experiment after three months and understand why it was conducted, what were the controls, where it went wrong. I knew that I was messy and that I needed to work on my discipline and diligence - this is partly what grad-school is for. I never had anyone review my notebook, my research project was not continued by anyone else (as far as I know). So was all my hard work down the drain? No, I don’t think so. It was very easy for me to write my thesis, even after 7 years I could still recall my mistakes.

There is a lot of debate about reproducibility - and the fact that most scientific results cannot be replicated. There is also a huge movement for open research. I say - start at the bench in your labs, build the open culture for better documentation and validation. The rest will follow.

Thoughts? Could a future lab member easily find your old samples and reproduce your work? How do you ensure you can recall your work months later?

Jonathan Gross is founder and CTO of Labguru