| Doing Science: Researchers and Exhibition Staff Talk About Their Work.
Keeping a Field Journal 1
|All scientists who
work in the field keep a field journal. In it they record everything they
find, observe, and collect. No matter what kind of science they are doing--whether
they are studying plants or arthropods, mammals or fish, individual organisms
or interactions between organisms--their journals contain the evidence
on which all of their work is based. The journals scientists keep become
the property of the Museum or other institution for which the study was
done. They are kept so other investigators can use them as references,
sometimes many years later.
You will be asked
to keep a field journal. It is not quite like a personal diary you might
write in at home, or even as an exercise at school, but it is not busywork
either. It will contain your evidence, and perhaps it will become part
of the class or school library, to be used as a reference by others.
To find out how,
and why, to keep a field journal, we asked an expert: Eleanor Sterling,
an anthropologist who has done fieldwork and kept field journals in Africa,
from the rain forests of Madagascar to the savannas of Tanzania.
"Field journals are
incredibly important," she told us. "Basically you can't do science
without them." We asked her to elaborate.
"When I first went
out into the field, I thought it wasn't very important to take notes, because
I wasn't collecting data, I was just looking for a site. I wrote down things
occasionally but not rigorously. Besides, the things I was seeing were
so amazing that I was convinced that I would remember them for the rest
of my life. But the truth is that so many things crowded my brain that
I couldn't remember them all, and some of what I couldn't remember turned
out to be very important. For example, when I got home, I couldn't remember
whether a little baby animal we had seen had his eyes open or closed. Now
that makes a huge difference if you want to figure out when the baby was
born. Later, when I was working on other research, suddenly that little
piece of information would have been very valuable . . . but I didn't write
it down!" She laughed. So the moral is: No matter how trivial an observation
or piece of information seems, write it down.
But how can you write
down everything? we asked.
"You can't write
down everything, it's true," Eleanor told us. You have to figure out what
basic things are important and then, through trial and error, you begin
to know what kinds of information you need for your project. "You will
probably find that you've left out some important data that you really
could use. Chalk it up to experience, and take more complete notes next
time," she advised.
Here are some tips
from Eleanor on keeping a field journal:
Use a well-sharpened
Begin each field session
by writing down these basics:
Record your observations.
Some things to consider recording are:
time of day
for example: is it cloudy, sunny, windy, raining?
soil conditions: for
example, is it moist or dry?
If things are happening
so quickly that you do not have time to get everything down, try developing
a coding system--what scientists call an ethogram--to help you make notes
quickly. For example, Eleanor assigns a number to each of a range of typical
behaviors, and when she observes one of those, she just writes down the
number. It makes taking notes on the run much easier. You can make up your
own ethogram to suit your site and the kinds of things you want to observe
and record. Just be sure to make, and keep, a key so anyone who reads the
journals knows what the numbers stand for!
if there are fruits
or flowers on individual trees or plants in your site
if you observe any kinds
of interactions among insects, like mating or fighting, or between insects
and plants, like feeding and pollinating
if you see any changes
from the last time you were there
Some typical arthropod
behaviors you might observe are:
When you get back to
class or, later, when you get home, read over your notes and underline
or use a highlighter to mark the really important things. You might want
to color-code them so observations or data in the same category are all
Do not lose your field
journal. Put your name and class number, and the name, address, and phone
number of your school on your notebook.
aggression and defense
caring for young ones
Losing a field journal
is every scientist's nightmare, Eleanor said. "You just can't reconstruct
all the data, so it's really a disaster when it happens." She told us some
stories about journals lost and found.
She once found another
scientist's journal in a marketplace in Madagascar, where paper is very
scarce and very valuable. It was being sold page by page, and fortunately,
the merchant had started ripping out pages from the back, where they were
still blank. Eleanor recognized the journal and knew to whom it belonged,
so she bought the entire book and mailed it back to its owner. "I have
a friend for life," she said.
Then there was the
time she was in Tanzania, studying baboons. "The little baboons would come
up to me all the time, and anything I put down beside me would be gone.
They'd snatch whatever it was, as if to say, 'Oh, this is cool,' and head
off with it into the forest. What I ended up doing was putting a string
through the spine of the notebook and attaching it to my belt, sort of
like a leash, so if an animal made off with it, eventually it would stop."
She also wore her pen or pencil on a string around her neck. That way,
if she needed her hands free in a hurry, she could drop everything and
not worry about losing it.
A strategy like that
might have saved another scientist Eleanor knows from some unpleasant mucking
around. She had her notebook in her pants pocket when she made a visit
to the outhouse. To her dismay, the book fell out of her pocket and into
the hole. Knowing what you know about the importance of field notes, you
will not be surprised to learn that the scientist retrieved the notebook,
but, as Eleanor said, "It wasn't a pretty sight!"
The Personal Field Journal
How you record data is a mixture of formal
requirements and your own needs and skills.
Field journals end up being very personal.
It may take some trial and error before you come up with the way that works
best for you.
A formal field journal, the type Eleanor
Sterling and other Museum scientists keep, has three parts:
A diarylike account.
A field catalog consisting of a list of specimens,
with a number assigned to each one. Specimens found in the field are tagged
and numbered to correspond to the catalog.
A species list, which includes all specimens
by number, along with the site and date of collection, the name of the
collector, and any remarks.
The field catalog and species list are
compiled back in the lab, often in separate notebooks. For your project,
they will be entered into the computer and posted on-line.
Some scientists write everything--measurements,
data, observations, specimens collected--on the same page; others record
some of this information--specimens collected, for example--in a list at
the back of the journal. Eleanor divides her page vertically, with the
main part reserved for recording data and a narrower area running down
the side for scribbling questions, ideas, sketches, hypotheses, and things
to look up back at school or in the library. Some scientists make sketches
or drawings; some do diagrams or graphs or flowcharts.
Back to Menu