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Research Management for Dummies

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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During my PhD I was never good at managing my research data. If you ask my former PI, I’m guessing she would actually tell you I was pretty bad. So much so, that she had an emergency lab book meeting with the rest of my group upon seeing mine when l was leaving. So it may seem a bit odd that it is now the thing that I probably focus on more than anything else in my work. When I started figshare, my main focus was liberating all of the research outputs that never see the light of day using todays methods of research dissemination. I still see this as the most important thing that needs to change in academia today. Luckily, it seems funding bodies and governments agree. Funding bodies are now asking academics to submit a research data management plan with their grant applications and the NSF recently reported that it would be assessing academics on their research ‘products’ not just ‘publications’.

However, this is still the end of the research cycle, or at least the end of most researcher’s dealing with their outputs. There is of course all the power that has yet to be fully realised by reusing, mining and building on top the existing research. But it was all of the steps before this that I fell down on. I was bad at documenting my research in my lab book. Half of this problem was laziness and half was the fact that text based lab notebooks are not ideal for the digital world we live in. Videos and large spreadsheet datasets do not translate well to paper, even after the obligatory printing, cutting and pasting. This led to me developing my own file management system, as did lots of my colleagues, leading to massive heterogeneity in research data management plans on a case by case basis. So what can be done?

Online lab notebooks

A lot of these technologies seem to fall down in their lack of innovation. Just like in academic publishing, where text based documents have moved from paper to ipads, there is so much more that can be done with today’s technology. Some great examples of researchers who have been using or used open notebook’s for years include Carl Boettiger and Cameron Neylon. While Cameron has now moved onto a role at the Open Access giant PLOS, Carl is still being innovative with new technologies to help make his research management process automated and seamless. Open notebook science has been around since Jean Claude Bradley first coined the term back in 2006. Previous efforts to organise some standardisation of online notebooks include the wiki-based OpenWetWare. While all of these efforts look to capture the detail of a normal paper based lab book, there is potential to think further and collect all of the extra metadata in an automated manner. This can be machine settings or other processes that we rely on human documentation for at the moment.

Desktop research management tools.

One thing we have been working on internally at Digital Science is a desktop tool for managing your research output. It has a few really cool features, such as the timeline that gives you an easily browsable and filterable view of your files. This is the kind of innovation that I previously mentioned has been lacking in this space. Just like a lot of my former colleagues used ‘Papers’ to manage their pdf documents, now you can manage all of your research outputs using ‘Projects’. The roadmap for ‘Projects’ looks bright with syncing between computers and the ability to push to the cloud, through services like figshare. Other players in this space include Evernote, Sharepoint and Google Docs. Evernote is an amazing organisation tool in general. They, like the other products mentioned here do sometimes fall down in this space in that academics are not their target audience, rather it is another case where forward thinking academics have taken great existing software and tried to bend it into their workflow.

Don’t be lazy.

It’s easy for me to say now that I don’t have to manage my research outputs, but putting an extra 10 minutes in at the end of the day will save you days when it comes to writing up papers or your thesis. This is 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 papers that we are trying to get out may not benefit me career wise anymore, it is still important to me to get those findings out to the world. But there must be so many who don’t have the luxury of still working in the same town that they did their research. Likewise, there must be so many who just cannot be bothered. Herein lies the problem. I had to go back to look for files that my old team couldn’t find, as they couldn’t navigate through my chaotic management system. Folders for every month with files that have names like ‘Updated characterisation of mobilised MSCs – Use this one – New’.

As mentioned previously the academic reward system is changing and with all things like this, the early adopters will benefit. Some of the people who have been acting in an open manner for the last few years are already seeing the benefit. C. Titus Brown, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Michigan State University wrote in a blog post this month, “I can tell you that my career has already been immeasurably improved by my openness, including posting our software, writing blogs, and engaging with people on twitter.” The funder disruptions in this space mean that all sorts of innovative behaviour is coming out of research labs. Publishers are taking note of this and trying to incubate these tools to get them past the point where most academic projects fail to get traction. Companies like Digital Science, the newly formed PLOS labs and Elsevier’s Scopus platform are all looking at innovative ways to work into the academic workflow. This use of new technology should bring a level of efficiency to research that academics have long been waiting for and have long deserved.

Mark Hahnel About the Author: Mark Hahnel joined Digital Science (Twitter) - a technology company that serves the needs of scientific research, straight out of academia. While working on his PhD in stem cell biology at Imperial College, London, Mark developed figshare - an open data tool that allows researchers to publish all of their data in a citable, searchable and sharable manner. Mark is also the Product Owner for Projects (Twitter) - a new scientific technology tool to help scientific researchers organise their research outputs in a safe, simple and structured way. Follow on Twitter @markhahnel.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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  1. 1. Alicebonasio 9:55 am 06/11/2013

    Also when looking at research workflow tools you should mention http://www.mendeley.com/ which allows you to manage your papers and citations as well as share them within groups and collaborate.

    Link to this

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