Will The iPad Replace Paper Lab Notebooks? 7 Issues That Need to be Overcome

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?


  1. Montana on December 18, 2018 at 9:12 am

    Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Efendy on November 11, 2011 at 11:49 am

    great topic. I am a little bit late for the discussion (I’ve come to know about the site and the thread after a google search on android and onenote anyway 🙂 ) but wanted to share my opinion and exprience on this. I was never a fan of printing gel pictures and sticky taping them on the notebook. For that sole reason I’ve been keeping my laptop in the lab and using onenote to replace my physical notebook. Onenote with laptop is great but if you only work in one physical lab. I have to change places many times during the day (and night!) that’s why laptop onenote combination doesnt cut it. I’ve now switched to livescribe pen and dot paper notebook and things are easier now. I can upload the pages onto onenote and sync onenote across platforms. Now I have a android tablet with a keyboard dock (Asus transformer to be precise). I have endnote and I keep all my notes, papers, manuals and protocols there. so whenever I need them they are a few fingers away. i was looking for ways to also record my notebook using onenote on the tablet but it doesn’t seem to be possible, at least for now. I dont think evernote is flexible enough to keep a notebook. there is no android version of onenote. there is mobile noter for android that you can use onenote but it seems a little bit buggy, at least for now. So i guess, for me, the ultimate combination for android / ipad would be a good implementation of onenote that you can sync through for example skydrive and evernote for everything else.

  3. Rory Macneil on July 6, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Thanks, Carl. I agree with your point about the lack of a culture for keeping a lab book, and the wide variety of things that ‘lab book’ means to different people. I am increasingly coming to the view that mobile devices, once they have been loaded with the appropriate apps, will be particularly compelling for recording information about physical things like samples, and that this is likely to drive their take up for use in research. This is touched on in some of the discussion above. But I guess it is less relevant to theorists like yourself?

    • postdoc on August 4, 2011 at 11:52 pm

      There is an ipad app that does just that. Check out http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/my-lab/id449475316?ls=1&mt=8
      This app has an ability to share protocols, place lab orders from the app and create a notebook that creates categories. Its been my first few days using it and so far i really like it.

  4. Carl Boettiger on July 5, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    Nice piece, good coverage of both social and technical barriers. We will see which ones yield first. As a theorist, I use an electronic lab notebook based on wordpress (see: http://carlboettiger.info/research/lab-notebook), together with a few other web-based tools to manage code, images, etc. I think as theorists we have fewer technical barriers to lab notebooks, the longest standing being that we don’t really need something portable to carry around, so the ipad won’t speed up our transition. Meanwhile, the greatest cultural barrier is that there seems to be no culture about keeping a lab notebook in the first place — some theorists do keep bound paper notebooks, others just scribble on whatever is available.

  5. rnaplus on June 22, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    I have completely abandoned paper notebooks. Wingu Elements (www.wingu.com) is a new cloud-based electronic notebook that would work wonderfully on a tablet. I currently use it on my laptop but I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work equally well on a tablet. The interface is simple and intuitive, but offers a lot of functionality (including sharing). I think once Wingu launches their product to the public, many of these issues will become extinct.

  6. anthonysalvagno on June 22, 2011 at 12:20 am

    My lab has been using laptops for a few years now for note taking, but we want to switch to tablets because we don’t need the excess computing power of laptops for most note taking things. I frequently use Evernote and Google Docs for my notes as well. Previously I used OpenWetWare (I keep a public open notebook: http://bit.ly/k6AsAq) but have turned away from it in support of faster note taking and easier online usability (ability to quickly embed and import things into my notebook via Evernote/Google Docs). I think tablets/iPad can greatly enhance these online tools and hopefully someone soon will make an even more powerful note taking app.

    • Rory Macneil on June 22, 2011 at 11:07 am

      Thanks for the description of your lab’s experience, Anthony. What features/capabilities would you like to see in a more powerful note taking app?

      The ability to annotate images?
      The ability to make sketches?
      The ability to deal with data relating to freezer samples?
      Better sharing?
      Offline capability?
      Other things?

      Thanks for your further thoughts!

    • anthonysalvagno on June 22, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      Actually in Google Docs, you can already kind of sketch things out. There is a handy little drawing app, but since I use a laptop it isn’t too ideal. Maybe it works better for tablets?

      I would probably want better sharing capabilities. Not too many notebook softwares are indexed in search engines unless you use a wiki or a blog to take notes. I’ve resorted to tweeting my notes in hopes that the links get indexed through twitter.

      I also would like better automation between apps. If I had time I would learn to develop this stuff myself, but that PhD won’t take care of itself. Ya know?

  7. tony on June 21, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    I second Frank’s opinion about onenote. Absolutely fabulous. All the information I gather in the lab goes into onenote. Lab notebook, primers, protocols, manuals, reagents i order, absolutely everything. the organizational ability of the program and the fact it is searchable make it (in my opinion) perfect. One alternative to the “pure tablet” is the tablet PC. Keyboard with pivoting tablet screen. I have been using a fujitsu tablet pc with good results. A tiny bit heavier then a tablet, and a little less “sexy, cute, cool, ect.), but much more practical and capable.

  8. Franko on June 17, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    I adopted several years ago the electronic journal and it has been a great experience. I used to have a UMPC (Samsung Q1UP) and Onenote. It worked very well at the beginning, but then I started to miss a physical keyboard (my writing is awful). Then I got a touchscreen netbook (Asus T101) and it is heaven on the lab. Onenote is by far the best office suite program and the combination with the keyboard and the touchscreen is unbeatable. I have my office in my bench all the time. I also sync the Onenote notebooks with dropbox which enables me to have my lab journal wherever I go. For me, it changed my way in the lab. My current PI does not celebrate my decision, but everytime he wants to have my results, I import part of the Onenote notebook to PDF and print it for him. This netbook uses little space in my bench and it really has boosted my productivity.
    I thought of changing to an Ipad or Android tablet, but Onenote is just the best lab journal you can have.

  9. Rory Macneil on June 17, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    micro naut,

    Thanks for your comments. You make a variety of points that, in my view, are interesting and vaild. Here are some reactions —

    1. I am not familiar with Apple’s approach to selling to schools. In terms of universities, most of the people I know who have Apple products, both students and academics, did not get them at a discount. They got them because they like them. I am not an Apple user myself, but I stand by my statement that many mac users view their laptops with the same devotion scientists have for their paper notebooks. I don’t care whether or not this is sensible, I was merely making an observation about behaviour I have observed.

    2. You said,

    “Sure, the Tablet form factor might be the next big thing in the future, but this shouldn’t mean it’s an Apple iPad.”

    I did not say that the iPad would be the thing that weaned people off paper notebooks, I said that tablets would do that, and that iPads would lead the way. So I guess you are agreeing with me.

    3. Obviously you don’t like Apple. I am agnostic about Apple versus non-Apple and am looking at the issue not from a normative perspectiive but in an effort to understand changes that are taking place in the lab and why.

    4. I thought the most interesting of your paragraphs was

    “The iPad doesn’t have proper document management. There’s no directory structure. There’s precious little memory to store large data files such as uncompressed images, and I would like to see it do z-stacking or computer modelling. Good luck running any open source software on it such as scribus, inkscape, libreoffice, gimp, or LaTeX. You’re locked down to proprietary software approved by your lord and master. You can’t even fit a USB device to it or use SD memory cards (even my sansa clip has that). As an e-reader it’s horrendously overpriced and over-specced as well. Why not get nook’s or kindles for students to share pdf’s”.

    That gets at the heart of the issue — what are people in labs beginning to use iPads (and no doubt in future other kinds of tablets) for? Clearly not data or file management, for the reasons you describe. Also not data intensive computing or modelling, again as you say, or running open source software. But of course people never did those things in paper lab notebooks either.

    What they are using iPads for is to take notes on the fly and make sketches. I.e. just what they do or did in paper lab notebooks. That is the point of my original post — indications are that tablets may be the thing that ends up replacing paper notebooks. And, unlike paper notebooks, tablets have the potential to become a platform that enables people to share their experimental and sample data and notes about that data electronically. That is possible in a primitive way now — e.g. by emailing around notes that are taken on an iPad. But sharing and archiving information from tablets will only be possible in efficient and intuitive ways as software is developed to make this possible.

  10. micronaut on June 17, 2011 at 11:58 am

    swing out arms on benches to hold laptops would be a cheaper solution than iPad’s and could be kensington cabled for security.

    The growing number of free or heavily discounted apple products in academia is just stealth marketting, getting in early with young consumers to ensure their brand is the students standard. It’s incidious marketting. Apple isn’t encouraging computer science or the development of IT tools for learning, it’s just making sure that every student and academic is using their software and locks into Apple in the future.

    The iPad doesn’t have proper document management. There’s no directory structure. There’s precious little memory to store large data files such as uncompressed images, and I would like to see it do z-stacking or computer modelling. Good luck running any open source software on it such as scribus, inkscape, libreoffice, gimp, or LaTeX. You’re locked down to proprietary software approved by your lord and master. You can’t even fit a USB device to it or use SD memory cards (even my sansa clip has that). As an e-reader it’s horrendously overpriced and over-specced as well. Why not get nook’s or kindles for students to share pdf’s?

    Cheap atom powered notebooks would be a better alternative that ensures students can carry them around, not worry about the cost of a replacement unit, and can install whatever operating system and software they like, particularly the computer scientists who are going to want to run unix or write code.

    Sure, the Tablet form factor might be the next big thing in the future, but this shouldn’t mean it’s an Apple iPad. Apple hasn’t changed the game at all. Well, they did in terms of offering the first main stream tablet computer, but the iPad version 1 was just a stake in the ground to get the tablet identified with Apple. The first iteration was moderately useless. No webcam, crap wifi reception, no OLED backlight, no multitasking(!), no HDMI out (I’ll just wire it up to this monitor for my lab presentation… oh wait… I’ll just transfer the files to this desktop computer then … oh wait…). iPad II is only better for the camera, which is straight out of the Touch.

    as for this:

    “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.”

    seriously? Did Apple offer you a free iPad to write this? The devotion of mac users is for brand identity, not personal computing. I assume this must be flame bait.

    Open source software and hardware is the only future for academia to ensure the flexibility and freedom is the future of science.

    • poorpostdoc on June 20, 2011 at 11:33 pm

      Despite my comments, I like your last statement about open-source software and hardware. As many of us are probably funded by public grants (taxpayer money) we ought to be utilizing open-source tools and journals when it comes to the research an publication.

    • codyish on November 4, 2011 at 7:14 am

      Who need directory structure built into the device with the rise of cloud computing? Put Dropbox on an iPad and problem solved.

  11. Rory Macneil on June 16, 2011 at 10:33 pm


    Thanks for your comments, really interesting I thought in several respects, including your description of how your work patterns are evolving and the requirements you see for the ‘ELN on the iPAD’.

    Your comments made me think of a couple of a few follow up questions:

    1. How important is it to be able to annotate the graphical objects that are embedded, e.g. making a sketch or a written comment relating to an image?

    2. Do you think the ‘ELN on the iPAD’ should be able to deal with data relating to freezer samples?

    3. I take it from the last sentence in your penultimate paragraph that you see the ‘ELN on the iPAD’ as primarily something that belongs to an individual (a bit like the paper lab notebook), but which can be shared with others, the boss in the first instance, but also possibly collaborators (again like a paper lab notebook, but the sharing is a lot more seamless/powerful since it is electronic). Is that right?

    Thanks for your further thoughts!


    • poorpostdoc on June 20, 2011 at 11:31 pm

      1. Absolutely – an iPad based ELN needs to have the ability to embed images on a particular notebook page, similar to how images are currently pasted/taped into a paper notebook.

      2. Heck yes. Freezer inventory is paramount. If you can make a note about the location of a sample in your notebook and have it tie to the freezer inventory the day you freeze it, wouldn’t life be great?

      3. Yes, data entered in an iPad ELN would have to be able to be shared in some manner. And yes, I see the iPad as primarily the property of a single lab member. The cost would be similar in some instances to paper notebooks (figure $35 per notebook x 14 I filled in grad school = $490), For postdocs (like myself) it might be harder to justify the cost, since we have shorter tenure.

  12. poorpostdoc on June 16, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    It is a brave new world…

    I can see this happening, especially since my laptop is already tucked into one end of my bench. I rarely use my office except to retreat for reading and crunching large datasets. And, my laptop is my laptop – a personally owned piece of equipment.

    My solution to the electronic lab notebook, right now, is the Livescribe smartpen. I have tested one other smartpen, but the Livescribe has the right combination of things – a paper notebook, the ability to sync to my laptop and optical character recognition of my horrible handwriting. The big drawback is that items pasted into my lab notebook are not transferred of course, so I have to leave myself a note, written in an outline of the object as to what belongs in that space. The other minor drawback is that the dot paper notebooks the pen relies on are currently only offered spiral bound – a “no no” for many labs.

    For the iPad to be an ELN the software running the notebook will have to have a way to embed graphical objects that are often part of our benchwork. The system will also need to support a method of “witnessing” recorded work and being locked after that particular page/section has been witnessed. Finally, syncing should probably be possible both over-the-air and by typical tether, with the end product not only stored on the user’s local computer, but also stored someplace accessible to the boss.

    It will happen. The tools just need to be created. Perhaps we should apply pressure to Mekentosj (the creators of Papers for the iPad and Solutions for the iPhone)!

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