Distinctions between capturing process and describing experiments

In discussing tools and services for recording the process of research there is a crucial distinction to be made between capturing a record of as it happens and describing an experiment after the event. A large part of the tension between those researchers developing systems for describing the outputs of research in structured form and the research scientists carrying out the experiments in the laboratory derives from a misunderstanding about what is being recorded. The best way to maximise success in recording the important details of a research process is to capture those details as they happen, or in the case of plans, before they happen. However most controlled vocabularies and description systems are built, whether explicitly or implicitly, with the intention of describing the knowledge that results from a set of experiments, after the results have been considered. This is seen mostly clearly in ontologies that place a hypothesis at the core of the descriptive structure or assume that the "experiment" is a clearly defined entity.

These approaches work well for the highly controlled, indeed, industrialised studies that they were generally designed around. However they tend to fail when applied to small scale and individual research, and particularly in the situations where someone is "trying something out". Most of the efforts to describe or plan research start with the concept of an "experiment" that is designed to test a "hypothesis" (see e.g. Jones et al, 2007, King et al, 2009). Very often the concept of "the hypothesis" doesn't usefully apply to the detail of the experimental steps that need to be recorded. And the details of where a specific experiment starts and finishes are often dependent on the viewer, the state of the research, or the choices made in how to publish and present that research after the fact. Products or processes may be part of multiple projects or may be later used in multiple projects. A story will be constructed later, out of these elements, to write a paper or submit a database entry but at the time the elements of this story are captured the framework may be vague or non-existent. Unexpected results clearly do not fit into an existing framework but can be the launching point for a whole new programme. The challenge therefore is to capture the elements of the research process in such a way that the sophisticated and powerful tools developed for structured description of knowledge can be readily applied once the story starts to take form.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License