Documentation as used here includes specimens as well as written and electronic data. Thus stuffed study specimens, skulls and skeletons, fecal and hair samples, tissue samples for DNA work, and much more all fall under documentation.

Lay people tend to forget (or not realize) the importance of documentation in science, but the self-correcting nature that is so important to science requires the ability to repeat investigations under the same conditions (or as near as possible) and the ability to doublecheck facts. Physical evidence is documented by the preservation of vouchers. If you claim to have shot a mammoth in Phoenix last July, you had better have a preserved specimen—the voucher— to show the one or two Doubting Thomases that are apt to be skeptical. Likewise, a field study on, say, the spatial distribution of Spotted Ground Squirrels in El Paso County, should be supported by copious notes detailing methodology, how the methodology was applied, and the raw data collected.

The physical evidences (and, ideally the written documentation, etc.) normally are kept in natural science collections (see Natural Science Collections Alliance). Many such collections are part of museum collections, others part of such organizations as the California Academy of Science, and many are held by various university departments. Locally, the collections of the Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, are housed in the Department of Biological Sciences and include over 8,400 specimens.

Written (electronic, photographic, etc.) documentation often is characterized as "field notes" and "laboratory notes". Laboratory notes are not further covered here because they depend so strongly on the aims and methodologies of the particular research. What may be apropos for molecular based studies may have little in common with a morphological or laboratory behavior study. A style widely used is found in Collecting and Preparing Study Specimens of Vertebrates by Hall (1962) and reproduced here in PDF format courtesy of the Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas. Adobe Reader or other applications that can handle PDF files are required; Adobe Reader is a free download.

The journal, or itinerary, is a record of activities and should be complete enough to pretty much reconstruct events that are involved both directly and indirectly in the research that might someday be pertinent (such as when the IRS questions the deduction you took for mileage). I've frequently heard scientists bemoaning scanty field notes; I've yet to hear anyone complain about having too many available. Remember, something that might seem inconsequential at the time may well be vital to later interpretation.

The catalogue is used to record specimens and pertinent data associated with the specimens. The simplest (and in my opinion, best) system is to use a running series of catalogue numbers that never repeat. That is, the first specimen is specimen no. 1 and the series goes on from there. There is a widespread tendency to try to make catalogue numbers fulfill a number of roles (archaeology, for example, is infamous for trying to include the history of the universe in a catalogue number), such as day, month, year, place, etc. In reality, the catalogue number has two functions: to distinguish the catalogued item from all other items and to tie data associated with the specimen to the specimen. The catalogue number then is placed on the specimen and all data and parts associated with it.

There are several items that always should be in both the journal and the catalogue: date, place, person (collector, if a specimen is involved). In the catalogue, if the specimen is a mammal, also included should catalogue number, sex, and traditional measurements (total length, tail length, hind foot length, and ear length; other data often are taken—the subject will be taken up in lab. Date should always be in scientific notation (day, month, year) with month not represented by a number; the full year should be given. Ex: 8 Jun 1887 (NEVER 8/6/87). Military, scientific, and much of European practice gives dates as day, month, year; common practice outside of these entities in the West is month, day, year. Depending on who is doing the reading, 8/6/87 could be 8 Jun '87 or Aug 6 '87 (and who knows what century the 87 refers to?; specimens should last many centuries, and after a few, it's difficult to tell from a specimen whether it's from 1787, 1887, or 1987).

Locality data should include, at minimum, state, county or similar governmental unit, and an exact locality. Ideally, country should be given also, but general practice is that it's added only if not the USA (parochial, aren't we?). In these days of GPS, exact localities are easy to come by and should be given with precision; ideally, a location in words referring to prominent and permanent features also should be given (how many of us can recognize a given place by latitude and longitude?).


Last Update: 16 Jan 2008

Centennial Museum and Department of Biological Sciences, The University of Texas at El Paso