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Blogs vs Wikis and third party timestamps

23 August 2007 4 Comments

I wanted to pull out some of the comments Jean-Claude Bradley has made on the e-notebook posts and think them through in more detail.

Jean-Claude‘s comment on this post:

There may be differences between fields but, in organic chemistry, we could not make a blog by itself work as an electronic notebook. The key problem was the assumption that an experiment could be recorded without further modification. But a lab notebook doesn’t work like that – the idea is to record work as it is being done and make observations and conclusions over time. For experiments that can take weeks, a blog post can be updated but there is no version tracking. It is thus difficult to prove who-knew-what-when. Using a wiki page as a lab notebook page gives you results in real time and a detailed trail of additions and corrections, with each version being addressable with a different url.

Thinking about this and looking at some examples on the UsefulChem Wiki I wondered whether this is largely down to a different way of thinking about the notebook rather than differences in field. I will use the UsefulChem Exp098 as an example for this.

This experiment has been modified over time and this can be tracked through the Wiki system. Now my initial reaction to this was ‘but you should never modify the notebook’. In our system we originally had no means of making any changes (for precisely this reason) but eventually introduced one because typographical errors were otherwise very annoying (and because at the moment incorporating all the links requires double editing). However our common use is not to modify the core of the post. Arguably this is a hangover from paper notebooks (never use whiteout, never remove pages).

In the case of the UsefulChem Wiki the rational objections to this kind of modification go away because it is properly tracked in a transparent fashion. However I still find myself somewhat uncomfortable with the notion it has been changed. I wonder whether this could cause an unfavourable impression in some minds? There is a good presentation with audio here where Jean-Claude describes the benefits of and good rationale for this flexibility as well as the history that brought them to the system they use.

Differences in use

The key difference I think between modifications in the respective systems is that in the UsefulChem case changes can be made over a period of weeks with corrections and details being sorted out. In the case of Exp098 this includes the analysis of a set of samples over the course of a week. There are then a series of further corrections over the course of over a month, although the main changes occur over a few weeks. Partly this is the nature of the experiment with it taking place over several days. We would probably handle this through multiple posts. I will try to set up a sandpit where I will see how we might have represented this experiment. The other element is the process of corrections and comments that are incorporated. I think we would implement this through comments in the blog rather than correcting the post.

So a key difference here is the presentation standards of the experiment. The aim for UsefulChem seems to be to provide a ‘finished’ or ‘polished’ representation of the experiment whereas I think our approach is more traditional ‘well that’s what I wrote down so that’s what is there’ kind of approach. The benefits of the former as Jean-Claude points out in his talk is that it is a great opportunity to improve the students standards of recording as they go. In principle if things really are brought up to standard then they can be incorporated directly into the methods section of a thesis, perhaps even a paper. In my group however I would do this as the methodology is transferred from the lab book (in whatever form) to the regular reports required in our department.

Third party timestamps and hosted systems

Jean-Claude’s comment again:

I think the main other issue is the third party time stamp. That’s one reason I like using a service, like Wikispaces, hosted by a large stable company. It also makes it easier for people to replicate overnight at zero cost if they are interested in trying it.

These are two good reasons for using a standard engine. Independent time stamps are very useful in demonstrating history, whether for precedence, or even for patent issues. If one of the key arguments in favour of open notebook science (or at least one of the main arguments against the idea that your risk being scooped) is that it provides a means of establishing precedence then it is important to have a reliable time stamp. I don’t know what the legal status of a computer based time stamp is but I do wonder whether from a legal perspective at least that an in house time stamp in a well regulated and transparent system might be as good (or no worse than) a signed and dated paper notebook. Again however, impressions are important, and while it may be impossible for me to fake a date in our system it doesn’t mean that people will necessarily believe me when I say it.

The second point here, that using a generic hosted system makes it much easier for other people to replicate is also a good one. A case could be made that if my group are doing open notebook science we are doing it with a closed system which at least partly defeats the purpose of the exercise. My answer to this is that we are trying to develop something that will take us further than a generic hosted system can – perhaps it may be possible to retro-fit what we develop into a generic blog or wiki at a later date but currently this isn’t possible. People are of course welcome to look at and use the system, this is part of what we have the grant for after all, but I recognise that this creates a barrier which we will need to overcome. I think we just see how this plays out over time.

Finally…

Final comment from Jean-Claude

But I think there is also a lot more to learn about the differences between how scientific fields (and researchers) operate. We may gain a better appreciation of this if a few of us do Open Notebook Science.

Couldn’t agree more. I have learnt a lot from doing this about how we think about experiments and how things are ordered (or not). There is a lot to learn from looking at how systems do and don’t work and how this differs in different fields.