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?

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  1. We’ve had a little while now to use our electronic notebooks, and overall they’re working out quite well. In reference to the title of this article, we are somewhat eagerly anticipating the release of the iPad app for the software so we can actually take our electronic notebooks to the bench. It will be quite nice not to have to print out all the planning sheets, which should save a good many trees over the years.

  2. On another post, Rory wrote:
    “An observation about your ealier post is that both you and the people who commented focussed on the utility of electronic lab notebooks for the individual researcher. Its obviously the case that ELNs have to be easy to use and attractive to individuals (or they will never get adopted), but the real utility of ELNs is in the value they add to the group, by making it easier for people to share and search for the full range of types of information dealt with by the lab, including experimental data. It would be interesting to get your views and those of your commenters, on this aspect of ELNs.”

    I completely agree with your point about the collaborative power of ELNs, and I think this (along with greater financial resources) is the reason why industry has been quicker to adopt ELNs than academic labs. While there are certainly exceptions, I think academic labs are less collaborative. When the lab is full of trainees, be it grad students or postdocs, there is an inherent focus on individual achievement rather than the completion of a project, as it is in industry. Some of this may be by design – you will never master the nuances of protein purification if you don’t do it for yourself, even if your labmate could get the job done faster and better. The other aspect is purely the nature of the system – the first-authored papers that a trainee produces are taken as the evidence of their training, so spending a significant amount of time advancing other’s projects wouldn’t likely be a wise career move. That is why I think the aspect of the collaborative power of ELNs that would most appeal to the average academic lab wouldn’t be the lateral exchange/management of information (between current members of the lab), but rather the linear exchange/management of information (between a previous member of the lab and the trainee(s) that are continuing the project). Admittedly, I have an academic perspective on the world (since that is where I currently ‘live’) so I don’t think I gave the collaborative aspect of ELNs enough of a discussion in the post.

  3. JQP,
    I think you missed the point – Google could be used to search them if they were electronic, and reading is required for either format. And you cannot read a physical notebook anytime, anywhere. You can only read them in the lab where they live (unless you have made copies). However, electronic formats can be taken anywhere required, provided the PI has given his or her blessing. On top of that, fires (and subsequent water damage) occur with disturbing frequency in research buildings.

    Electronic formats have their issues – as I detailed – but not these issues.

  4. “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?”

    WRONG, sort of…Google can’t find a thing if the information was never entered. Two, you can search paper notebooks, the process is called “reading”

    The notebook is SUPERIOR to any electronic format for this reason, archival reasons. You can search anytime, anywhere, you don’t even need electricity to use one! The language will remain the same, no programs, no converting, nothing.

    Electronic media is only as good as how often it is backed up. Even then it is not perfect. As long as your building never burns down, you will NEVER have to worry about your paper notebook. Electronic has so many unsafe variables. Plus, it takes longer to use it.

  5. Well, I am almost a year into my PhD program and I am using word as my lab notebook, period. Even though it’s a time consuming process, it’s the only way I am willing to work. At the bench I am scribing all my notes on a draft paper and then copy it into a GLP-like template of word while on the road back home. it’s also helping me process the day at the lab and the obtained experiment’s results. I have numerous backups, I usually find anything I need in a matter of 10sec (using google desktop, which also digs PDFs). The ppl at my lab think I am crazy…
    Oh, and of course I am also printing and archiving every journal entry in a Binder for the meetings with my PI.

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