Adventures in Ethics and Science

An earlier post tried to characterize the kind of harm it might do to an academic research lab if a recent graduate were to take her lab notebooks with her rather than leaving them with the lab group. This post generated a lot of discussion, largely because a number of commenters questioned the assumption that the lab group (and particularly the principal investigator) has a claim to the notebooks that outweighs the claim of the graduate researcher who actually did the research documented in her lab notebooks.

As I mentioned in my comments to the earlier post, in many cases there is an explicit policy in place at universities where graduate research is conducted that states that the lab notebooks are the property of the lab — or even of the university itself. Under such circumstances, especially if graduate researchers have been informed of the policy and have indicated their agreement to abide by it (usually there’s a form they sign), it’s hard to back out later and claim that you ought to be allowed to take your notebooks with you.

But no matter what the prevailing policies may be, I think it’s worthwhile to think about what the policies on lab notebooks in academic labs ought to be.

So, I put it to you: Who ought to have control of a graduate researcher’s lab notebooks, and why?

Make sure you spell out the details you think are important in making the determination (who provided the funding, who came up with the initial idea, how the notebooks might function in further research and who might want or need to use them, etc.).

I’m hopeful that graduate researchers and PIs (among others) will participate in this discussion so we can get the views of a full range of interested parties on the table. And, if we end up coming up with a policy that all the parties think is pretty reasonable, we can turn our attention to the problem of implementation.


  1. #1 coturnix
    June 30, 2007

    I am in the personal possession of every scrap of paper, every notebook and every floppy disk that has to do with any of my grad research. I am assuming that the lab has some copies or can squeeze raw data out of old computers if needed.

  2. #2 CrzyMke
    June 30, 2007

    It has to be the lab’s property. Speaking as someone who just picked up a project that budded off of some previous work – it is virtually impossible to get started when you don’t have access to the precise data and methods that were previously used. Its like reinventing the wheel. This was a project that was picked up and dropped by a very secretive grad student that no longer has interest in it – and speaking with him is like weeding through a discussion section with no figures. I’ve lost months of time and thousands of dollars repeating experiments we’ve already done. Not to mention the fact that PIs are obligated to have all of that data for granting institutions should they ever request it. Personally – when I leave a lab, I’ll make photocopies or have digital copies of everything I’ve done – but the originals really should stay. Its not your grant – its not your data.

  3. #3 S. Rivlin
    June 30, 2007

    Lab notebooks are the property of the lab. The funding, the (original) idea, the equipment used in producing the data in the notebook and the notebooks themselves, all are integral parts of the “lab.” Graduates should be allow to make copies of every detail in those notebooks for their own use however, the originals must stay in the lab.

    In my lab there are notebooks going back 25 years. Much of the research that is going on today in the lab is based on work done two decades ago. Comparisons are frequently made between old and new data and many a problem were solved thanks to the existence of old notebooks.

    An exception could be made in cases where the graduate’s project is one that the lab would not continue to work on, while the graduate would. Then, a copy can be kept in the lab and the original could go with the graduate.

  4. #4 PhysioProf
    June 30, 2007

    Lab notebooks belong to the PI (more exactly, from a legal standpoint, to the institution that employs the PI). This is so uncontroversial that I cannot believe it is even a topic of discussion. When people join my lab, one of the first things I do is give them a lab notebook and explain to them that it belongs to the lab, is a public document, and must *never* be removed from the lab, even temporarily.

  5. #5 Drugmonkey
    June 30, 2007

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet is the question of why institutions have their official policies in place. It is not for institutionalized hosing of graduate students. It is so that in cases of fraud allegation, the raw data are available. This is why PIs should hang onto every bit of data because they are the ones on the line should there ever be a need to prove the veracity of their published papers.

  6. #6 Benjamin Franz
    June 30, 2007

    Actually, the question is part of a larger question: Is a graduate student an employee of the University doing ‘work for hire’ or a pre-professional student performing research of their own at the University?

    Universities have appeared to want to have it ‘both ways’: Grad students can’t unionize for better pay and working conditions because they are students getting an education but the universities want to lay claim to their work product as employees doing work for hire.

  7. #7 coturnix
    June 30, 2007

    “An exception could be made in cases where the graduate’s project is one that the lab would not continue to work on, while the graduate would.”

    That was my case. PI is about to retire. He has all the notebooks of previous students and postdocs, though.

  8. #8 flunkie
    June 30, 2007

    My ‘lab’ didn’t have lab notebooks, but some of the students did. Continuity was through word of mouth or electronic copies of word documents where the MS Equation-writer V3.0 doesn’t work in MS Equation -writer 4.3. My advisor may have provided the some of the funding and ideas, but there was no established way of delivering it back to her as her intellectual property: it came out as masters and PhD theses. She, the department, and the library got copies, and I kept my hard drive with all my data ans ancillary files.

    Denying copies of the working documents to either the PI or the researcher as a matter of policy seems wrong. As for the PI or the researcher producing work derivative from the working documents, it seems that that is the whole point of academia–everything is derivative, and you ought to cite your sources and acknowledge your collaborators. A policy of blanket copywriting the material to preserve control of the IP solely with the PI seems overboard. There are mechanisms for control of IP, and the lab should choose how they use them: Copyright and patents. If the lab is serious about keeping its procedures under its control, it should patent them. If a lab wants sole control over the lab notebooks, it should copyright them.

    If the question is whether the researchers and PIs have the right to keep notes about work they collaborated on, it seems madness to not let them. Why do any academic work where you aren’t allowed to learn?

  9. #9 Hilary
    June 30, 2007

    It’s now more than 20 years since I completed my chemistry PhD, after which I ceased active academic research (I’ve since returned but in a completely unrelated field). Last year I went to my research supervisor’s retirement dinner and was absolutely astonished to learn in conversation that a long while back my old lab-books had been subpoenaed in some fairly substantial intellectual property litigation.

    My initial research project was industry funded but failed within a few months because it turned out to be essentially undoable, so I’d changed the focus of my research to something that worked instead. In retrospect it appears that although academic research on WHY or HOW the technology worked wasn’t feasible for technical reasons, nevertheless it did work and was of considerable commercial value (which at the time I’d not appreciated).

    My lab notebooks turned out to be crucial evidence to prove that my industry sponsor had discovered by the time I started my PhD, and before it was independently discovered by their competitor. If it had been left to me I’d probably have thrown them away long before the case came to court.

  10. #10 Alan Kellogg
    June 30, 2007

    Use open source licensing.

  11. #11 Chris
    June 30, 2007

    I get paid by my PI and the graduate school, so clearly the work belongs to them (and the taxpayers who fund their grants).

    You don’t hear employees at Microsoft claiming that the application they developed at work belongs to them. It’s just silly.

    Were I not getting paid to attend school, my attitude might be different, but in the hard sciences, at least, there probably isn’t much room for argument.

    What graduate students get out of the deal is a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience, and a good reputation (if all goes well).

  12. #12 Bill
    June 30, 2007

    What Solomon said. At least, that’s been the set-up and policy in every lab I’ve ever worked in — and not just for grad students, but for everyone’s notes.

    (Of course, if Open Notebook Science becomes the norm, this question will be moot.)

  13. #13 Rob Knop
    June 30, 2007

    A single rule would be a mistake.

    When I was leaving LBL, I was told (by a secretary who realized that the rule was absurd) that every note I’d taken as a part of the work I’d done belonged to the lab and had to be taken over by archiving.

    This was nuts for a lot of reasons. First of all, a bunch of the notes I’d taken were notes to myself about how to do stuff. Not research results, not lab procedures, but cheat sheets of a sort. Some of them came with me from before I was at the lab, and got modified there; a strict reading of the policy was that I didn’t get to keep them.

    Second, I was going to continue collaborating with the group I was working on. It was of greatest use to the lab if I were to continue to have those notes, for they might help me. However, they weren’t written in a way that anybody other than me would easily be able to get anything out of them.

    Part of the question here is : what is a lab notebook? I think a lot of the discussion is implicitly assuming that the raw data is included as part of what’s in the lab notebook. That has never been the case with anything I’ve done outside of lab classes in college.

    I still have my graduate school lab notebooks. They would be of no use to anybody other than myself, ever. Indeed, they’re not even much use to me anymore either.

    Nowadays, when I do the equivalent of making a lab notebook– that is, making notes to myself about what I’m doing as I’m reducing data– I do it on a Wiki, and I try to encourage my students to do the same. This is ideal, because it’s immediately visible to everybody in the group. They can take it and we can keep it, if they like, with a minimum of effort. (It’s much different for a physical bound lab notebook.) However, as regards the data itself, ideally in the headers of the images is everything that’s been done to it.

    When it comes to results, ideally the paper includes enough information to reproduce the chain of data reduction and analysis. That is where the real public documentation comes in.

  14. #14 Leah
    June 30, 2007

    I’m interested to see all the comments, as my own experience is quite different. When I was in undergrad, I worked in a biochem lab; there, the lab notebook followed the rules most here have enumerated (must stay in the lab at ALL times, is completely the property of not only the PI but also the grant that paid for our research, etc). In that circumstance, it was crucial that the notebooks remain to avoid duplicating costly work — we were doing protein purification and western blots, and we leaned heavily on the notes from the previous years of undergrads that had worked on the project.

    Now, I’m in grad school in Ecology. We don’t have any lab notebooks at all that are owned by the lab. We have a whole ton of data on some computers, and lots of preserved specimens from a long-term survey at our study site. Other than that, each student is encouraged to do his/her own work, produce our own notebooks that we keep, and move forward after grad school to continue the work at other institutions. It is a big maddening at times, especially with procedural standards. I’m a first year, and I’m fairly new to field work, so I spend a whole ton of time just chatting with my advisor, the lab manager, and the other grad students to figure out the finer points of the engineering of field equipment and experimental design.

    It’s been a bit of a headache, but it’s also nice to encourage so much conversation. Also, I’m glad I’ll be able to keep my notebooks — the observations I’ve made and will make over the next 5 years are fairly important to my future work, and I don’t know how truly helpful it will be to have a bunch of my notebooks sitting around. I’ve certainly used the dissertation publications of former students in my lab. But, again, if I have questions, I just shoot an email to the former students, and I’ve never had a problem.

    I really think the “lab notebooks” phenomenon is more crucial in chemistry/molecular/cellular type labs where the expense of mounting an experiment is much higher. Also, in labs where there is a PI who hands down projects, I can certainly understand why notebooks should stay in the lab. But in my lab, we are all required to pursue our own path (not just encouraged — I should know, since it took me a really long time to find an experimental path I wanted, and my advisor just let me sit and stew as fieldwork season started up. He said I’d be happier with my own experiment. He’s right, but I was sweating for awhile there). Since we move in so many different directions in the lab, and since our advisor doesn’t co-pub with us or hand down projects, I think it’s fine that we don’t leave our notebooks behind.

  15. #15 S. Rivlin
    July 1, 2007

    “Of course, if Open Notebook Science becomes the norm, this question will be moot.”

    This is the crux of the matter! Open notebook used to be the norm. Fears of stealing ideas had closed the notebook and science became a secretive vocation. Today, suspicions of all kind about scientists and their work are the norm. And, of course, under such secretive conditions, it is so much easier for the cheaters to cheat and to be selective in what they publish (and what they don’t).

  16. #16 Moonshadow
    July 1, 2007

    I don’t think a universal set of rules regarding lab notebooks for all disciplines is possible. First, as Leah points out, field research is very different from purely lab-based research. Something observed in the field that is only peripherally related (or not related at all) to the research design and hypothesis should be the property of the observer. The funding is usually requested in a specific grant proposal stating what is to be researched. That funding “buys” the observations, data, and results that pertain to that particular research project. So the raw data, procedures, failed experiments or approaches are also part of what the funding bought. These data should be written up and included in the “official” lab notebook – a complete record of that research project, with everyone’s work included. This ancillary information can be included in the appendices of the final research report. If the final report contains a “Suggestions for Future Research” section, ancillary questions can be listed there.

    But there should also be the private, individual lab notebooks of each one involved in the research. These private notebooks are their private property. The funding doesn’t buy every possible thought, observation or question generated in the course of the research in the minds of everyone involved. It always comes back to the individual integrity of each researcher (undergrad, grad, post doc, PI, whatever)to submit to the official lab notebook all the related information. The official lab notebook is not the same as the final research report. The lab notebook with everyone’s contributions should be archived, but the personal notebooks go with the individual researchers.

  17. #17 Renée
    July 1, 2007

    There is a very simple solution to this problem – use carbon-paper lab books. This is the practice in a number of research groups at my university. The student and the university each get to keep a copy. Easy!

  18. #18 Bill
    July 2, 2007

    Renée — I’ve tried that, and for me it was a mess. Not only are the carbon books horrible, but what about data — pictures, sequence traces, autorads? I found myself making photocopies of those to paste into the carbon-copy version. It was a lot of makework for no good reason, I thought.

  19. #19 Dior
    July 2, 2007

    I have been a lab manager for over fifteen years in both academic labs and biotech firms. It is undisputed that the lab note books, your thoughts, ideas and inventions, are the property of first, the lab (PI, company or institute) and second the funding group. Congress a few years ago passed a resolution that any academic lab that has Federal funding must turn their lab notebooks over at any time to anyone who also gets Federal funding, or to a tax paying citizen. To my knowledge this has never been done, but it is the law (or don’t accept federal funds). Most academic labs are underwritten by one of the big biotech/pharma companies and they also have first shot at the data. The only way you can keep your notebooks is you personally set up your own lab and fund all your research yourself. You can then patent your own work and keep it as secret as a patent will allow, or do as Coke does and never give out the formula. I know it sucks to some of you but that is the law. Now there is no provision in academia to my knowledge(although pharma has stipulations) on keeping a second lab book for yourself.

  20. #20 Curtis
    July 2, 2007

    Electronic notebooks are the solution. Even if they aren’t “open notebooks”, they would still be in electronic form that could easily be copied for every user. Ownership of the notebook would be much less important.

    With paper notebooks, my understanding is that the lab/university owns them and keeps them. It’s up to the student to make copies of anything they want to keep.

  21. #21 Bill
    July 2, 2007

    Congress a few years ago passed a resolution that any academic lab that has Federal funding must turn their lab notebooks over at any time to anyone who also gets Federal funding, or to a tax paying citizen.

    By “turn them over”, you mean “provide access” not “make a gift of”, right? How about allowing someone to copy the books?

    Could you point me to the text of that resolution somewhere? I am very interested in it.

  22. #22 RPM
    July 3, 2007

    A lot of people are assuming that the PI initiated the research. What if the research catalogued in the notebook was instigated and developed by the grad student? Does it stay with the PI because it’s property of the university? If so, what happens if the PI moves to a different university? Not all grad student notebooks are created equal.

  23. #23 TheBrummell
    July 3, 2007

    In my experience (genetics), lab notebooks contain raw data, official protocols and procedures that essentially go into / come straight from the Methods & Materials sections of published work, and lots of very useful “personal” notes on things like how to make that published procedure actually work in your lab using your quirky equipment. My notebooks also included lots of rough-work type things, like working out appropriate concentrations at appropriate volumes of necessary chemicals and stoichimetry for converting the published concentration in moles/litre into grams/millilitre and so on. Those little notes are probably the most valuable part of my old notebooks – the raw data is available in a big Excel file on the lab’s computer (and my computer, and my other computer, and about 2 dozen CD-ROMs I burned as backups, and on my advisor’s computer, and…), the protocols came from the literature anyways, and stoichiometry is just a skill a grad student in genetics should have at that point. But the little, unpublished hints that will allow one to actually produce results are very valuable.

    We dug through some former grad students’ and technicians’ notebooks on a regular basis during my Master’s, looking for those little hints, or the alternate name of the chemical we suddenly needed to order more of. My advisor made it clear to me that my notebooks never leave campus, but the legalities were never discussed.

    I tried to take good notes, and I think I succeeded. In any case, I think the process of keeping a lab notebook that you know somebody, someday may want to refer to long after you’ve left, forces the grad student to develop good notebook skills and habits.

    As far as I’m concerned, the notebooks (all of them) belong to the lab / PI. Anybody can make copies of any notebook, in part or in whole, but the originals should stay in the lab. That’s where they are most useful, leaving aside any questions about legalities, ownership, and what a grant buys or not.

    Finally, thanks for bringing this up. I’m interested in this discussion.

  24. #24 Dior
    July 4, 2007

    sure Bill, I don’t have the resolution number, but in short Congress mandated that your notebooks with projects using Federal funds were in essence “open source”. Let’s say a congressional aid wanted to make sure you are using a grant as intended. They could walk into your lab and ask to view your notebook, not take or copy it. Whether they understand it is another story. I believe this was all started before Bush deamonized stem cell research, and the fundies wanted a way to track it. At The Scripps Research Institute where I worked, it never came up. However Novartis underwrote the Institute and had first shot at any paper or idea. To my knowledge they never exercised any options on this, but all this still cast a quiet shadow over our work. Hope that answers it.

  25. #25 Bill
    July 4, 2007

    They could walk into your lab and ask to view your notebook, not take or copy it.

    I don’t have a problem with this. In fact, I’m wondering if some argument couldn’t be made for Open Science as a way to comply with this resolution. We probably don’t want to go there, but I’ll try to track down the text of the decision anyway.

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