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Showing your work

Found via In the Pipeline, Blog Syn has had a really interesting peer review experiment going on organic chemistry, in which they try to reproduce a reaction from the literature. In this case, the author of the original paper (Phil Baran) showed up to respond and clarify the experimental details and demonstrate reproducing the experiment again, this time with more detail and pictures.

My takeaway from that is that there really isn’t a substitute for pictures when doing experimental science. Scientists (home chefs too!) know that despite detailed written instructions and descriptions, getting experiments to work is as much an art as it is a science. You just have to learn to do it by doing it, but pictures and video help a lot in jump starting this process. Websites like JoVE are amazingly valuable for learning and executing experiments, because you get to see what you’re supposed to do, not just read it.

Maybe in days to come, filming lab experiments will become routine. What if researchers set up a video camera or cheap webcam pointed at their bench while they set up their experiments? That would be an incredible resource, but so far our lab notebooks aren’t set up to handle that kind of data. We have a hard enough time cutting and pasting photos and graphs into our paper notebooks, or uploading scanned images into our electronic notebooks. Making this sort of data easier to capture and link to our lab notebooks would be an amazing next step.