In April 2010, just after the release of the iPAD, Jode Plank wrote an article for Bitesize Bio asking whether the iPAD will replace lab notebooks.  Fast forward a year and a bit, and I’d like to put my head above the parapet and answer the question:  Yes!  With the iPAD now a roaring success, Android tablets beginning to make a mark, and a Windows tablet in the offing, the clamour is growing among scientists to use the iPAD in the lab. IMHO, it’s only a matter of time before tablets, led by the iPAD, are playing a central role in the lab and, ultimately, replace paper lab notebooks.

But what will it take to make this happen?  Here are seven issues that need to be overcome:

1.  Price

Tablets are not cheap.  Who is going to pay for them?  The lab?  The institution?  Individuals in the lab?  Will tablets will come to be seen as an essential piece of personal lab equipment, i.e. like a computer, or a personal accessory, like a cell phone?  I would argue that, like a laptop or a netbook, they will be in an in between category: something that belongs to the individual, but is sometimes used in the lab.    Early adopters are already buying tablets (mostly iPADs) themselves and exploring how they can be used now and might be used in future with additional functionality, and in some cases PIs are finding funding to purchase tablets for all lab members.  But as tablets come to be seen as more and more essential, more labs and institutions will buy them for or supply them to scientists.  So a mixed funding model is likely to emerge, at least in the interim.

2.  ‘Spillage’

Comments like the following made in a comment to Jode’s article are often put forth as a reason that tablets are inappropriate in the lab environment and will never replace the trusty paper notebook:  “Acid burns, spills, burns and too many falls.  I doubt the iPAD would resist a normal lab use.”  What’s my view on that?  This is a transitional issue that will be overcome as usage grows.  If the demand is there, usable protective covers will be produced.  And let’s not forget that plenty of other portable electronic devices are already common in the lab; think barcode scanners, for example.

3.  Accessibility

One of the main reasons that people are reluctant to abandon paper notebooks for electronic lab notebooks is the convenience and utility of pen and paper — you don’t have to boot up a paper notebook, it’s always at hand.  The new generation of tablets, however, are always on and don’t need to be rebooted.  So that objection is quickly becoming historical.

4.  Writing

Another advantage of pen and paper is that you can jot down notes and make sketches. Tablets, however, now support direct input with a stylus.  So the inability to write on a screen is also quickly becoming historical.

5.  Acceptance

What if your PI is attached to paper lab notebooks and doesn’t like the idea of ‘going electronic’?  In the short term, that clearly is a major barrier to uptake of tablets in the lab.  But a growing number of PIs are not just accepting tablets in the lab, they are pushing their uptake.  As is the case with all new product categories, the curve of adoption needs to start with early adopters before it spills out into the mainstream.  But that is not a long term barrier, just a matter of time.

6.  Familiarity

An issue you don’t see that much discussion about is to me crucial.  This is that paper lab notebooks are so familiar, like a trusted friend and companion where your life, or your research life at least, is recorded.  The working equivalent of a personal diary or journal.  How could you possibly give that up?  Most scientists have opted not to do so when the alternative is using a software program that runs on a computer.  Yes there are some enthusiasts, many of them mac users, who have always viewed their laptops with the same devotion that scientists have for their paper notebooks.  But they are the exception, not the rule.  The iPAD has changed the game.  People have the same personal relationship with the iPAD they have with their cell phone.  They love it!  And I’m betting that that will be a key factor in enabling the iPAD to do what electronic lab notebooks have failed to do:  get scientists to transition away from paper lab notebooks.

7.  Notetaking and Sharing

So that’s it then, the pieces are in place for the transition to gather pace?  Not quite.  There is still one crucial missing piece in the puzzle.  That’s because when people look at transitioning from paper to electronic they actually want to do more than they could in a paper notebook.  They expect to be able to take full advantage of the power of the web in organizing, sharing and archiving their data.  That’s true of individuals, and it’s even more true of labs looking at electronic solutions.

So the missing piece in the puzzle is software that allows easy entry and manipulation of experimental and sample data, and controlled sharing of that data, in a way that fits snugly into existing workflows and post-research writing up and publication of results.  I’m predicting that the advent of software with these characteristics on tablets will be the trigger that pushes tablets into mainstream lab use.

What do you think?