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THE BLACK HOLE

Let’s start improving research lab websites

Among other things, these websites should be sharing the lab’s protocols and disclosing the career progression of its researchers.

By DAVID KENT | MAY 16 2019

I was having a chat with a former colleague the other day about what happens to scientific research that does not end up in papers. We weren’t talking about negative results, but rather about the experiments that validated someone else’s work, but just did not comprise “enough for a paper of their own. This got me wondering about how individual labs that are specialists in a given area of science might share their expertise by making better use of their lab websites.

First – who is a lab website for? The general public don’t often find themselves on the research lab website of an individual scientist – this is where university and institute websites have a much bigger role to play. Rather, the biggest audiences of these websites are prospective employees, students and other scientists in the same or similar field (e.g., potential research collaborators). What do these groups really get from a typical lab website – a research summary, a few lab photos (of people or their research), a list of publications and not much else. What could they get from these websites? That’s what I want to explore today.

The obvious first one: protocols

One of the most common requests from other scientists from one lab to another is to obtain the details of how something was done. Protocols sections of academic papers often suffer in two ways:

  1. they often do not have all the relevant information or practical notes and,
  2. they may not reflect the most recent version of said protocol (or there may be alternative versions based on the goal of an experiment).

Having a protocols section on a lab website allows a research lab to post the set of techniques that their group is known for and might also result in refinements coming from other scientists. We all have these protocols stored on a group drive somewhere, and liberating them for the world to use can only be a good thing. Moreover, tracking the use (i.e., number of downloads) and maybe even having unique DOIs (Digital Object Identifier) for protocols could be very useful for future efforts and to allow others to reference your method.

The we did it too section

The longer I’ve been in research, the more I value “trusted” sources. When certain labs do things a certain way, I can be sure that that protocol will work or that the result communicated is trustworthy. Similarly, if one of those labs gives a thumbs-up to another lab’s work, there is a sort of secondhand trust that gets conferred. I’ve long-dreamed of having a sort of TripAdvisor for experiments, this could be the start of such an effort. A section dedicated to papers that have changed the way your lab does things, methods you’ve adopted, or information that you have data to support would give clear support to other people’s data and research conclusions – making for more robust conclusions overall and trying to move toward better reproducibility. This could also come full circle, with your lab’s protocols section having a sort of “thumbs-up” from other research labs across the world.

Researcher outcomes data

I’ve written about this idea before, but one of the most valuable things that labs can do for prospective employees and students is for academics to publicly disclose the career progression of their former trainees on their website. This allows informed decision-making by prospective lab members and also acts as a good readout of someone’s training record. I still think that the Kouzaridess lab outcomes page is a great rubric for this feature – simple, straightforward and very effective at launching group leaders!

Additional website thoughts

As alluded to above, there is much more to strive for beyond single lab websites. For example, I think there is a huge opportunity for other organizations to step up their game: scientific societies, national institutions, and research institutes can all help collate and filter this type of information that would appear on single lab websites. Protocols databases are an obvious area that would be instantly useful. Beyond this, I also think there is a huge role to play in the public engagement space where institutional memory is akin to that of a goldfish. When things work, they should be shared widely. Perhaps this will be the topic of a future post – stay tuned. In the meantime, let’s start with improving lab websites and tracking the utility of such efforts.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Brett / June 20, 2019 at 17:17

    Great ideas in this post. In addition to protocols I would like to see sites either host code (Python, R, etc), or link to a GitHub repository which outlines how particular analyses are done. I understand not all analyses in research are written in code, but for those that are it would be cool if it was shared/promoted more broadly.

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