Thursday 2 May 2013

Recording the data

In science, the lab-book is a sacred thing.  It is a record of what you have done at the frontier, why you did it, a record of the results and an interpretation of what it all means.  When someone is accused of fudging or nudging the data to better accommodate a cherished hypothesis, their lab-book is the only record that can be scrutinized: the original solutions and samples have long since been flushed down the sink with copious amounts of water. So the lab-book must never be amended, pages must be numbered, none may be removed, errors may be crossed out but not whited out.  In the course of a PhD, you might build up a dozen lab-books, all numbered on the spine, fat with stuff stuck in.

My old boss (who like all my bosses was younger than me so not that old) used to use the early lab books as part of the loco-parental therapy session when her students, each in turn and some regularly, experienced La noche oscura del alma and wondered if they were mad, and bad, to have embarked on such a crazy and frustrating voyage.  When they complained that they had done nothing nothing in the last three years that amounted to more than a hill of dead animals uselessly sacrificed, she showed them through the books just how painfully ignorant and incompetent they had been when they came to her.  Paradoxically, ladling on of more evidence of uselessness was a great fillip as the students all recognised that progress had been made, if only in their development as a thinking reed and a good pair of hands.

Yesterday was my last class with my quirky, disparate and wholly lovable 3rd Year students.  I've had them for four different classes since January, rarely have all 10 of them been present, but it's a different 5 or 6 or 8 who turn up each week ready to find something out.  Their collective attendance has been patchy and their discipline in handing up their lab-books for scrutiny and marking has been sketchy.  So I used the last class to request-and-require them to submit any remaining material by Friday at the latest because that was the last day of the teaching year.  They get credit for this as CA (continuous assessment) and it's an easy way to accumulate a platform of marks from which to leap at the exams. Lab-books of all colours and classes began to appear from bags and satchels and the xerox box which we used as submission station was soon full. 

Then one of the students asked me if I'd marked his Food&Ferm book, which he said he'd handed to me in class several weeks before.  This was way beyond my two-week event-horizon, so I had no recollection and the mark book showed that I hadn't marked it, so it was a worry.  The labs we use are busy with classes all day every day and some will have a throughput of hundreds of lab-books each week. In the search, I turned up the 1st Year Biology lab-book of another of the students in the same 3rd Year class.  So its clear that you are hunting down through an archaeological dig as well as widely through contemporary material.  Class dismissed and I settled down to mark through the backlog of my 2nd Year group, which I've had for two wholly different classes and who have been quite as patchy and sketchy in their turn-in scheduling.  After a couple of hours and a cup of tea, I mooched back to the F&F lab and looked in the wrong direction and there was a blue lab book tidied away on a shelf near the centrifuges - bingo!

There's got to be a better way.

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