On Lab Journals And Craft Journals

ford model T cut paper and watercolors illustration

I have a pile of red, soft cover spiral notebooks I bought at the beginning of my postdoc. The first ones became lab journals, and now I’m using the rest of the pile as scrap-, sketch-, and whatever-notes-I-need-to-take- books. I could just have grabbed notebooks in the supplies cabinet of the Physics Department, but I was rather specific about how I wanted my lab journal. I wanted spirals so I could open it full, fold it back and stack it on the corner of a lab bench, occasionaly tearing out any pages I wanted to get rid off. I wanted it to be my very own. And I really liked the red covers.

When I was first explained what a lab journal was as a young student, I felt invested of a very serious mission. The progress of Science was basically lying on my shoulders. I was responsible for writing down everything anyone would need to reproduce a successful experiment. Later I learned that writing something that would still make sense to me after a few years was a much more reasonable goal.

I secretly delighted in carefully trimming and gluing plots and tables here and there on the pages of my precious notebook, a craft I undeniably excelled in in elementary school but had been deprived of as more and more ring binders appeared in my aging student gear. I used the good old fountain pen I was carrying along in my pencil case since high school. People would be impressed. “Is this your lab journal? Whoa! It’s spotless!”.

It was. Nice and clean. No crossing-outs. But besides my beautiful handwriting, undeniable talent for page layout (and shameless use of erasable ink), I guess it also had to do with the fact that I kept trial and error stuff on additional lose pages of scrap paper. I felt that I had to keep these separate because I didn’t trust that I would be able to discriminate established facts from guesses I had made when I would come back to the notes I made a few months earlier. I guess I also naively thought that my lab journals would eventually be passed on to and used by the next student working the same experimental setup, so that I should refrain from cluttering them with my personal ramblings.

It was a bad idea, because I’m sure that to some extent, it simply prevented these ramblings to even happen, and the process of research is largely about these ramblings. So, as a postdoc I finally started allowing myself to write down everything that came to my mind with whatever pen happened to be available. I used carelessly teared tape instead of glue and crossed out whole sentences without scruples, trying to let the ramblings happen. But it quickly became clear that virtually no one had any interest in them until they could be turned into something that sounded publishable, as very often opposed, I felt, to genuinely interesting. The pitiful state of my neglected lab journal reflected my own state of mind: I felt lost, bored and frustrated.

Around the time I had made up my mind to leave academia after the end of my postdoc, we had our annual group meeting. Besides the appointment of volunteers to organize the Christmas party, “a new routine for lab journals” was on the agenda. Our university, following the popular European tendency and ensuring compliance with the nowadays popular paradigm of intellectual property, had decided to set up a strict lab journal policy that involved distributing and keeping track of calibrated, institution-owned notebooks in which we, researchers, were responsible for writing down everything we did in predefined boxes: date, title of the experiment, description of the procedure and results, signature, signature of a witness. Everything you wrote in here became the property of the university, and everything you had to write had to be written in there. If you were allowed to keep a copy of your notes when leaving the institution, the original notebook had to be handed out for archiving.

Everyone agreed that such a rigid procedure was completely disconnected from the reality of the researcher’s work. But the protests were only about the form. Some found it obsolete to have a paper journal when they were usually keeping all their notes electronically. Even the paper lovers like me unanimously found the dimensions of the book and its rigid cover very unpractical. And of course the exigence of having every single page countersigned by “a witness who understood the content” made everyone roll their eyes in exasperation.

But we didn’t talk about the intellectual property thing and its meaning for the future of fundamental research. “You know, this is how it is, now”, our group leader said. “We have to follow the new rule”.

So I was left with these extra red, soft cover spiral notebooks and now I use them to record my new creative endeavors. I’m gradually realizing that they are truly mine. I do hope I can still understand these sock-knitting instructions in a few months.

I think that applying a vision of intellectual property in which knowledge is a good with an economical value to what academic research produces is wrong for many reasons. First, any honest researcher knows that it its extremely tricky to attribute a research result to a single person, a single research group or a single institution. Second, this process slows down the diffusion of knowledge to a wide audience, who incidentally also often coincides with the tax payers who funded the research. And third, it promotes the harmful idea that research is only about results.

It reminds me of book by French writer Daniel Pennac called Comme Un Roman, an essay about reading. Pennac starts by pointing out that the verb “read”, just as “love” or “dream”, doesn’t make any sense used in the imperative form. Well, the same could be said for any creative endeavour. And in my opinion, it applies to research, too. I don’t think you get the best out of researchers by ordering them to find, find, find.

other thoughts


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