lab work

Research Work and The Lab Book As a Physics Major

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Now where were we? Oh yes! You have now started with your actual research work. You and your adviser have agreed on at least the general type of area you will be working in and you have started to do a lot of literature search of what is going on in that field, what is known, what is unknown, what are the hot areas of study, etc. One important note here is that to NOT be rigid in one particular area especially during the early years of your project. In many cases, you and your adviser are still exploring an area of study before both of you narrow down into the exact, specific area that will eventually end up as your thesis research work. The best thing you can do right now is to gain as wide of a knowledge base as possible. If you are working in tunnelling spectroscopy, don’t try to limit yourself with just one family of material. If a wide range of material is available and open for study, go for it. You’d be surprise how something that may appear at first to not be important, might turn out otherwise later on. Trust me on this.

What I would like to stress in this installment of this series in the ”ethics” of doing research work. I will illustrate this from the point of view of an experimentalist, but there are elements here that are also relevant to theorists. In general, the ethical practice of doing research applies to every field of science, so use what I will be describing as a ”case study” and apply it appropriately to you line of work/study.

When I used to conduct physics laboratory session for undergraduates, one of the practice I tried to instill onto my students was the writing of everything they did and observed during the experiment into a laboratory book. I want them to acquire the skill of writing these observations clearly, to write down what they are doing, why they are doing it, and their observations, even to the extend of writing down what they are thinking regarding the data they collected. Was there something peculiar? Are there something not working correctly? Are the data consistent with something else? Are things just making no sense? Are the equipments malfunctioning or not giving the expected results?

Not only that, I wanted them to write all of these in INK, and I prohibited any ”erasing” of anything they wrote in their lab book. If they think they made a mistake, just cancel it out, but leave it legible. Now was I being psychotic for insisting things like this? I hope not, and I will explain why. In doing research work, it is imperative that you record almost everything clearly. In most cases, it is for your own good, so that if and when you need to figure out what you did later on, you just don’t have to rely on your memory, especially if you want to know what you did then, what parameters were used to make such a measurement, etc. However, there is also another important reason for such a record. While this doesn’t occur very often, when it does, you’ll be glad you have such a record. In certain cases where it is necessary to establish who did what, and when, your lab book is often used as official evidence, especially in the court of law. If you work for an institution, be it governmental, academic, or commercial, the lab book is the property of that institution (i.e. you can’t take it with you when you no longer work for that institution). If there are disputes, questions, issues, etc. arising out of your work, your lab or record book is the definitive evidence in such matter.

This is why you should always write your entries with a date and in ink. You want as permanent of a record as possible. In addition, if someone else comes in and want to reproduce your work, this is the ultimate source to see what was done exactly.

We have seen cases where improper or lack of record-keeping created serious consequences. The infamous Schon debacle at Bell Labs is the most recent example. The fact that he could not show any written record of his experiments (he could not produce any lab books of his experiments) created a serious doubt on the validity of his work. This resulted in his fall into disgrace – he was fired from Bell labs, a large portion of his published work were retracted, and his alma mater withdrew the granting of his Ph.D degree.

Now granted that things like this do not occur very often (luckily), but many smaller forms of double-checking do. It is never too early to make sure you keep a careful record of what you are doing. Even if you are a theorist, it is always a good idea to make sure your work and ideas are kept in a record book. Not only will this allow you to go back and remember what you did (or why you were doing it), but it allows others to understand what you did and when you did it. Besides, if you win the Nobel Prize and become a world-famous physicist, they’ll want your doodling to be put in a museum or some place! :)
Moral of the story: keep as complete of a record of your research work as possible.

ADDENDUM: I know I sometime have an uncanny timing, but this is ridiculous!

In the just released online edition of Nature (22 September 2005), a news report about the embattled japanese researcher has indicated that his lack of record-keeping is casting doubt on his work. The report says that
“A respected Japanese scientist who failed to produce laboratory notebooks confirming his published results now faces a furore over the credibility of his findings. On 13 September, the University of Tokyo’s School of Engineering held a press conference to say that Kazunari Taira, a professor at the school who specializes in RNA research, had not provided raw data to verify his team’s results. The RNA Society of Japan has also questioned some of Taira’s methods.”

So kids, I’m NOT making this up when I say that you’d better start learning to write everything down on paper when you are doing something related to your studies/work. It may be a boring and tedious task, but when stuff happens, you’ll be sorry that you didn’t.

PhD Physics

Accelerator physics, photocathodes, field-enhancement. tunneling spectroscopy, superconductivity

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  1. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:
    strangerep

    From the legalistic viewpoint, must the records be ink-on-paper? What if one enters notes, etc, directly onto one's laptop?

    If those notes were to be summoned into a court of law, would it be believable that it was in its original form and no one could have tempered with it?

    The medium here is irrelevant. It is the ability to "time-stamp" and not have it tempered with is the crucial part. There are many projects now where there is an online, electronic lab book, where participants make entries that are permanent and time-stamped. So this is not an issue.

    However, if you simply opened a Wordpad document, wrote notes in it, and then expect that to be a valid "lab book", then you'd be mistaken. Furthermore, if this is done on your personal computer, this is also not acceptable unless this is your own personal research project funded by you. The person or institution that paid for you to do your work OWNS the work that you do. You cannot keep information and parameters of your work on your own personal device without a duplicate record of it that belongs to that person or institution.

    Furthermore, and this is relevant to experimental work, a lab book is usually attached and goes with the experiment or equipment. There has to be a proper record and documentation on what was done on that system and when. This is crucial especially when there is a revolving door of people using that equipment. When something goes wrong, one of the first things people often do is look at what was done before and by whom. Keeping records for your own use is not only detrimental to diagnosing future possible issues, it is also selfish.

    Zz.

  2. strangerep
    strangerep says:

    Yes, that's all as I suspected — thanks.What about in the case of theoretical research? E.g., if a calculation is too long to publish in a peer-reviewed journal? Would uploading a copy of the full calculation onto the arXiv or some other public server be sufficient to qualify as a legally acceptable "timestamp"?

  3. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:
    strangerep

    Yes, that's all as I suspected — thanks.

    What about in the case of theoretical research? E.g., if a calculation is too long to publish in a peer-reviewed journal? Would uploading a copy of the full calculation onto the arXiv or some other public server be sufficient to qualify as a legally acceptable "timestamp"?

    When has this ever happen?

    Zz.

  4. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:
    strangerep

    My question was hypothetical.

    But if it is something that has never happened, then hypothetical or not, it is pointless. It is why we don't discuss what, hypothetically, a unicorn prefers to eat.

    I deal with real, actual issues, not non-existent hypothetical situations.

    Zz.

  5. strangerep
    strangerep says:
    ZapperZ

    But if it is something that has never happened, then hypothetical or not, it is pointless. It is why we don't discuss what, hypothetically, a unicorn prefers to eat.

    I deal with real, actual issues, not non-existent hypothetical situations.

    Zz.

    Well, one might ask "if I feed a dog chocolate, will something bad happen?". I do not know of a specific case when this has been done, so the question would be hypothetical, at least for me. Nevertheless, the question is hardly pointless, since one is asking whether anyone else knows the answer.

    But OK, I won't bother you with further questions.

  6. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:
    strangerep

    Well, one might ask "if I feed a dog chocolate, will something bad happen?". I do not know of a specific case when this has been done, so the question would be hypothetical, at least for me. Nevertheless, the question is hardly pointless, since one is asking whether anyone else knows the answer.

    Not a good comparison, because that has been done before, and your vet CAN tell you easily the answer, even based on our understanding of the biology of a canine. The same can't be said about your question, which has a closer association with a unicorn than a dog.

    Zz.

  7. strangerep
    strangerep says:
    ZapperZ

    Not a good comparison, because that has been done before, and your vet CAN tell you easily the answer, even based on our understanding of the biology of a canine. The same can't be said about your question, which has a closer association with a unicorn than a dog.

    Actually, all it says is that you are not the right kind of "vet" to answer this question. OK, that's fine, you are an experimentalist.

    But I just realized that there is a related real world case: the calculation of Einstein, Infeld & Hoffmann many decades ago when they installed a copy of their tediously extensive calculations in a public library in case anyone wanted to check. So never mind, — I withdraw the 2nd part of my question.

    Bye.

  8. symbolipoint
    symbolipoint says:
    strangerep

    Well, one might ask "if I feed a dog chocolate, will something bad happen?". I do not know of a specific case when this has been done, so the question would be hypothetical, at least for me. Nevertheless, the question is hardly pointless, since one is asking whether anyone else knows the answer.

    But OK, I won't bother you with further questions.

    The point is that some time, somewhere, some person recorded a test of feeding chocolate to dogs. The events were almost certainly recorded in a laboratory notebook.

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