Data modification and lawyers

Science in the open is running an interesting series of posts on how to implement an open e-notebook. The latest, blogs vs wikis and third party timestamps, raises some interesting issues regarding the modification of e-notebook posts and legal validation. For instance:

I do wonder whether from a legal perspective at least that an in house time stamp in a well regulated and transparent system might be as good (or no worse than) a signed and dated paper notebook.

I’ve never been able to understand why ink on paper is held in such high regard as a measure of validity and honesty. Back when I was writing up my Ph.D. thesis, people were just beginning to incorporate scanned images and there was much debate in universities as to whether this was acceptable. I would point out to anyone who would listen that it doesn’t take a computer to fake data – it takes malicious intent. There was nothing to stop me making up a bunch of values for an enzyme assay and plotting them out with a pencil on squared graph paper (remember that?) if I so desired. Typing the numbers into a spreadsheet just makes the fabrication less arduous. So where’s the difference between my signed and dated piece of graph paper and my Excel chart?

Bioinformaticians are used to the idea that data changes all the time. Genome sequences are reannotated, software is continually revised, docking parameters are optimised. As the original blog post points out, modifications to data records shouldn’t be a problem. What’s required is transparent, third-party tracking of modifications. This is surely easy enough to achieve by hard-coding it into the ELN application – then if questions are raised, the person in the lab with any coding skills will be the only natural “suspect” ;)

Admittedly I have never worked on research that required lawyers, so I’m ignorant of how people reach decisions about what constitutes a legally-binding document (though my suspicion is that they just make it up). Just another incentive to adopt completely open research. When everyone has their raw data and methods hanging out there for all to see, we can dispense with the legal fees!