In this column, I spend a lot of time making fun of some of the more frustrating parts of science and research in general. But seeing as it’s a new year, I wanted to take the time to list a few things I think we should all try to do this year to make science a better place.
So here is a list of 5 things I think we could all do/try out.
5. Post your data online.
It is pretty rare these days that the kit used in experiments is not giving out digital readings to a computer. Most kit now comes with iPhone apps or will e-mail you the data when it’s done. So there is no excuse for not sharing your data online so other people can use it as a comparator. If you publish it in a paper or a company report, please give us a link to a text file with the numbers in. You might even get an extra citation for it.
4. Take on a work experience student
I can actually be more specific here – take on a Nuffield student. It’s a great organisation helping the best students find research experience. I hosted one this year and they did some excellent work arming one of our robots with an anime sword (vital project work, honest) and got to see what a real lab is like (~40% coffee breaks). From the outside, science research is hard to grasp as a job and giving students a small window on to it is so useful for helping them decide what they want to do with their lives. Besides, showing them that research is not like CSI, Bones or The Big Bang Theory is basically a public service.
3. Try electronic lab books
This is slightly motivated by my utterly unreadable handwriting but also because I went fully electronic with Evernote about 2 years ago and it’s been fantastic. Every one of my lab write-ups now include photos added directly from my phone and all the linked raw data. And all of it is stored in a database with a search feature! I realise people needing sign off etc might not be able to do this but those that don’t should really try it.
2. Contribute to Wikipedia
Like it or not Wikipedia is the first stop in most people’s research. Yes, later on they actually dig though the paper and books, but most people start at Wikipedia. But it’s far from perfect and oddly sparse in some highly technical areas. You don’t need to sign up to edit a page and can submit changes in about 30 seconds. Give your fellow researchers a hand and if you see something lacking or wrong, quickly correct it.
1. Write up your work somewhere other than a paper
Not everyone that might get something out of your work reads papers. To people not deep in the soft furry belly of research, they can be impenetrable or in some cases inaccessible. Writing up your paper for a wider audience on a blog is a great way to make sure that somewhere there is something the clearly explains what you did, that might be picked up by collaborators or funders you never would have considered. If you’re stuck for where you can try then I can strongly recommend Laboratory New’s very own Shout Out section.
We’re not going to change the world with any of these but we might make it that little bit nicer to do research in. And I’m not just saying this because I recently had to try and run a project based on poorly written lab notes, a misleading Wikipedia entry and data that was only stored as a scanned PDF of a low resolution graph.