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Will the iPad Replace Your Lab Notebook?

The release of the iPad this week may bring the long-expected replacement of the paper-bound lab notebook by electronic notebooks one step closer. But are scientists, particularly PIs, comfortable with electronic lab notebooks?

The rise of the tablets
The concept of an electronic lab notebook isn’t anything new, and even the idea of implementing it on a tablet PC has been around for a while. However, as of six months ago, the only tablet PCs widely available were specialized laptops, with a swiveling touchscreen displays. The current crop of tablets, be it Apple’s iPad, Microsoft’s Courier, or any of the other offerings, brings us a lighter, cheaper, more ‘handle-able’ computer that many of us could see sitting beside us at the bench. The power of these machines is diminished compared to the specialized laptops, generally speaking, but still more than enough for the task. So will these technical advances usher in the demise of the paper notebook? It may depend on the software, and our expectations of it.

Physical versus electronic
The advantages of an electronic lab notebook are obvious:

  • You can search them. The information that you want is somewhere in the dozen lab notebooks of your predecessor – who wouldn’t want Google to help them find it?
  • You can copy them with the click of a button. Creating complete back-ups of paper notebooks is time consuming and laborious, which means it often doesn’t happen. Easy (or even transparent) back-ups of electronic lab notebooks allows storage of current copies off-site in case of disaster.
  • They are legible. Do not underestimate this point!
  • You can put some pieces of data in them that you just can’t put into a paper notebook. Current scientific data can take the form of movies or of an interactive, multidimentional interface (think genomic and proteomic data), that just can’t be taped into a paper notebook without the “loss” of data. (The data exists, just not in the notebook.)
  • Did I mention that you can search them? Just think how powerful that could be.

The advantages of a paper notebook are fewer but significant:

  • The book is a universal format. You can pick up a lab notebook from 1985 and read it. Try to read a 5½ inch floppy disk from 1985. Even if you pull the data off the disk, how many files from 1985 can still be read by today’s programs?
  • Lawyers love them. A prebound, handwritten notebook, properly signed, dated, and witnessed, is the gold standard for defending patents or concerns of scientific misconduct. Even though many of the high-end electronic lab notebook programs sold to pharmaceutical companies go to great lengths to ensure the integrity of the data, having cracked versions of popular mainstream programs available weeks after their release undermines confidence in these claims, at least to the non-computer science crowd.
  • They are cheap. No licenses to maintain, and no worries that the notebook will stop working if the lab has to go a year without funding.

Moving towards a universal format
Some of the electronic lab notebook programs out there have recognized that proprietary file formats worry scientists, and are moving towards more universal formats. The most popular choice seems to xHTML. This seems the logical choice – it can be read by many programs including the handful of web browsers out there. It can certainly handle images, movies, graphs, and even link to particular files when proprietary programs are required to look at the data (sequencing chromatograms, for example). And while it may evolve, the world is invested enough in it to give it the best chance of survival.

How rigorous do you need to be?
This may be controversial, but in an academic lab you may not be as worried about making patent lawyers happy as in industry. I know that academic labs patent things, and that rigorous dating and witnessing of lab notebooks can be important for other reasons, but the truth is that many labs are already violating these rules with their current paper-based system. Here is the range of paper-based notebook rigorousness that I’ve seen in academic labs:

  1. All lab notebooks used are prebound with numbered pages, any extraneous material (such as a picture or graph) is glued in, and all pages are signed and dated by the experimenter and a witness.
  2. All lab notebooks used are prebound with numbered pages, and any extraneous material is taped into the notebook. Dates are recorded for the experiments, but the pages are not signed or witnessed.
  3. Lab notebooks consist of binders, and experiments are recorded on pads of scientific paper, which are added page by page to the binder as they are used. Extraneous material may either be taped to the pages or may simply have holes punched into the edge and added directly to the binder.

Actually, I lied. Even though 1 is the most proper (rigorous) way to keep a lab notebook, I have never seen a lab that handled their notebooks this way. I’m certain there are some that do, but I haven’t seen it myself. I’ve seen some labs which function with system 2, and most that I’ve seen use system 3. System 3 works great, but only if you trust the scientist that created it. So if your lab is using a relaxed paper-based lab notebook system, do we really need to get caught up in this aspect of the security of the electronic lab notebook?

How does free sound?
With the introduction of the new tablets, developers are creating a number of programs that we haven’t really seen before: journaling programs. These programs, in broad brush-strokes, are intended for people to use to record their thoughts, insert images, and link to other files (or web pages). Do these parameters sound familiar? While they certainly don’t offer all the features of commercial electronic lab notebook programs, they do 95% of what most of us would want them to do, and they are essentially free. (If you want an example, check out this video.) Alternatively, with a little work you can use a program you’re already familiar with – Word or an equivalent – to set up your own HTML based electronic lab notebook. These programs would have the lowest form of dated security, consistent with system 3 described above, but you can’t beat the price.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Do any of you work in a lab that uses an electronic lab notebook? What system do you use, and how do you like them? How long do you think it will be before we are all using electronic lab notebooks?

26 Comments

  1. Matthew on April 14, 2011 at 10:51 am

    I’m a molecular biologist in a University-based lab. After searching around (a lot) I’ve now settled on using Evernote (http://www.evernote.com) as my lab notebook. I’ve been using it everyday for the past few months and I really like it. Whilst I was looking around the options for ELNs I found they fell into two main categories, they were either too structured and designed more for biotechs or else they were too simple and effectively just a glorified word document. I liked Evernote because it was intuitive, cross-platform (I use a mac at my desk, an iPad on my bench and a PC at home) and it has all the features I need. There are some things which will always be easier to just scribble on a bit of paper, but now I can just take a picture of those scribbles and Evernote’s text recognition function will work its magic.

    For the past few months I’ve happily been using the free version, but am now considering upgrading (£2.50 a month for academics) as it increases the number of file types I can import.

    I am in no way connected to Evernote, I just think it fits my needs really well.

    And more generally, ELNs are a great improvement over traditional lab notebooks. The ability to search, make templates, tag and generally to organise your experiments has been really useful to me and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a written lab book now.

    • Brian on October 25, 2011 at 5:11 am

      I have thoroughly enjoyed this discussion on ELN, and wanted to pick some brains here. I teach high school science and have been tasked with setting forward the schools progression to ipads as digital textbook and other uses.

      I wanted to pick Matthew’s brain about using evernote as that seems like the easiest and cheapest way for a school on a limited budget to implement an ELN. I look at CERF but that is obviously far beyond what we could implement.

      My e-mail is [email protected]

      Thanks,

      Brian

    • invasifspecies on November 8, 2011 at 11:45 pm

      CERF is not necessarily out of reach of high schools and Rescentris is just about to release the second version of their popular iCERF app for iPad. This latest version of iCERF, combined with the recently released CERF 4.5 server update will make the CERF the most advanced cross-platform ELN and data management system available by far. Contact us via http://rescentris.com for more information.

  2. poorpostdoc on March 30, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    Personally, I’ve gone to using Livescribe notebooks (http://livescribe.com) after being left with a paper copy of my 14 graduate notebooks, which are fun to search through. Though my handwriting could be better, the Livescribe does a decent job at searching it. When I leave – originals go to the boss (if I’m nice, a searchable PDF version too). Drawback – it’s a spiral bound notebook, and things pasted in – gel images and such – aren’t in the electronic copy.

  3. Jordi Calveras on August 20, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    The prerfect thing to get, even on Mac OS X, would be the E-Notebook sold by Cambridgesoft. They only have the version for windows. It can be centralized on a server, all the computers connected to it. It has “tabs” to put the NMR spectra of your compounds, the IR. It has a wonderful tree structure. I can write a reaction saying what are the reagents and the products, the catalyst, the equivalents and then I obtain all the necessary data. It is very neat.

    Somebody know some cheaper equivalent ? the commercial version for windows is way too expensive I don’t mind to pay a resasonable price for a piece of software like this.

    • invasifspecies on November 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

      CERF includes optional livescribe integration.

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