During my PhD, I was never good at managing my research data. If you ask my old private investigator, I guess she would actually tell you that I was pretty bad. So much so that she had an emergency meeting for a lab book with the rest of my group upon seeing mine when I was leaving. So it may seem a little odd that this is now the thing that I probably focus on more than anything else in my job. When I started figshare, my main goal was to release all search results that never see the light of day using today’s search dissemination methods. I still see this as the most important thing that needs to change in academia today. Fortunately, it seems that funding agencies and governments agree. Funders are now asking academics to submit a research data management plan with their grant applications, and the NSF recently indicated that it will assess academics on their research ‘products’ and not just their ‘publications’ .
However, it is always the end of the research cycle, or at least the end of most researchers processing their results. There is of course all the power that has not yet been fully realized by reusing, extracting and building on existing research. But it is on all the stages before that that I fell. I was bad at documenting my research in my lab book. Half of that problem was laziness and the other half was the fact that text-based lab notebooks aren’t ideal for the digital world we live in. Videos and large spreadsheet datasets don’t translate well to paper, even after mandatory printing, cutting, and pasting. This led me to develop my own file management system, like many of my colleagues, resulting in massive heterogeneity in research data management plans on a case-by-case basis. So what can we do?
Online lab notebooks
Many of these technologies seem to be collapsing for lack of innovation. Much like in college publishing, where textual records have moved from paper to iPads, there is so much more to do with today’s technology. Some great examples of researchers who have used or used open notebooks for years include Carl Boettiger and Cameron Neylon. While Cameron has now moved on to a position with open access giant PLOS, Carl is still innovating with new technologies to help make his search management process automated and transparent. The science of open notebooks has been around since Jean Claude Bradley first coined the term in 2006. Previous efforts to organize some standardization of notebooks online include OpenWetWare, which is based on a wiki. While all of these efforts are aimed at capturing the details of a normal paper lab book, it is possible to go one step further and collect all the additional metadata in an automated fashion. These could be machine parameters or other processes for which we rely on human documentation at this time.
Desktop search management tools.
One thing we’ve worked on internally at Digital Science is a desktop tool for managing your research results. It has some really cool features like the timeline which gives you an easily searchable and filterable view of your files. This is the kind of innovation I mentioned before that was lacking in this space. Just as many of my former colleagues used “Papers” to manage their pdf documents, you can now manage all your search results using “Projects”. The roadmap for âProjectsâ looks bright with synchronization between computers and the ability to push to the cloud, via services like figshare. Other players in this space include Evernote, Sharepoint, and Google Docs. Evernote is an amazing organizing tool in general. Like the other products mentioned here, they sometimes fall into this space in the sense that academics are not their target audience.
Don’t be lazy.
It’s easy for me to say now that I don’t have to manage my search results, but putting extra 10 minutes at the end of the day will save you days when it comes to writing articles or your thesis. It’s something that comes back to haunt me to this day. Since leaving academia 18 months ago, I have made several trips back to the lab. Even though the articles we are trying to get out may no longer benefit me from a career perspective, it is still important for me to share these findings with the world. But there must be so many who don’t have the luxury of always working in the same city where they did their research. Likewise, there must be so many people who just can’t be bothered. This is where the problem lies. Had to go back to look for files my old team couldn’t find because they couldn’t navigate my chaotic management system. Folders for each month with files with names such as “Updated Characterization of MSCs mobilized – Use this one – New”.
As mentioned earlier, the academic reward system is changing and with all of these things early adopters will benefit. Some of the people who have acted openly over the past few years are already seeing the benefits. C. Titus Brown, Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Michigan State University wrote in a blog post this month: âI can tell you that my career has already been greatly improved by my openness. mind, including posting blogs and interacting with people on Twitter. Donor disruption in this space means all kinds of innovative behavior is coming out of research labs. The editors are taking note and trying to incubate these tools to get them past the point where most academic projects fail to be successful. Companies like Digital Science, the newly formed PLOS labs, and Elsevier’s Scopus platform are all looking for innovative ways to integrate academic workflow. This use of new technologies should bring a level of research efficiency that academics have long awaited and deserved.