The science logbook

In order to help my attempt at doing a ‘reflective journal’ as part of my Postgraduate Diploma of Tertiary Teaching, I’ve had a read of an article by Simon Borg:  "The research journal: a tool for promoting and understanding researcher development",  Language Teaching Research 5(2), 156-177 (2001).  I was given it as an example of how journal-keeping can be useful to research. 

This particular example is focused on education – maybe that’s why I found it quite hard going.  Borg talks about the way that he has used his journal as a source of data in order to guide his research.  My initial thinking was that this was all very wishy-washy (I’m a scientist, after all, reflecting is what an electromagnetic wave does when it encounters a change in impedance); how does this apply to science? Then I had a sudden flash of understanding.  What Borg was referring to as a reflective journal, I would refer to as a logbook.

If you are doing science research, it is almost essential to keep a logbook. This is where you write down what you are doing, why, sketch out your methods, record your data (OK, so most of this goes on the computer now), analyze it, write down your thoughts on what is happening, identify what you need to change, discuss what you might try next, etc.

This, I believe, is basically what Borg was getting at. Phrased in the ‘logbook’ way, rather than ‘reflective journal’, it sounds a whole lot less intimidating and perfectly achieveable to a hardened scientist like me.  Logbooks are essential in science – they allow you to come back to something you did yesterday, last week or last year, and see what was happening.  They are a record of your work – but not just of your work – also the motivation for it and the thinking around it. If you don’t write those things down, they don’t get recorded, and the logbook is the place to put them.  They are a vital research tool, just as Borg has found in the education context. (And, in some cases, a vital piece of evidence in patent disputes that you actually thought of an idea independently and before someone else)

As an example, I remember a few years ago back in the UK when I had a real job that I was needing to do a particular experiment.  Now, I was reasonably certain that an ex-colleague (who had left the company a year or so previously) had done this experiment already. I went searching in the filing cabinets for his logbook, found it, and within ten minutes or so had located his discussion on this experiment. Such was his good record keeping and writing, I was able to discern exactly what he had done and what he had found out, just from reading the log-book. And that meant I didn’t have to spend a week repeating the experiment.  The logbook pays for itself in the end!



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