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The good, the bad and the ugly of electronic lab notebooks

By: Roche Life Science

Posted: May 12, 2015 | Everyday Essentials for Research

As an undergraduate or postdoc researcher, it's likely you've come across electronic lab notebooks (ELNs). Ever since the Internet boom of the mid-1990s, digital forms of ELNs have slowly become commonplace in a research setting.

This platform has really taken off in recent years as technology continues to get more sophisticated and user-friendly. Even a decade ago, it would have been unheard of to not include textbooks or reference books in the lab. iPods were just taking off, Google was still a start-up and reading/research (for the most part) was often done in a library or at the lab with an actual book.

According to the National Institutes of Health, computer systems and research processes became intertwined during the 1990s with pharmaceutical companies. More recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has expressed interest in ELNs, so this relationship between tech and the lab is nothing new.

That being said, lab notebooks are important parts of a researcher's life. All of your expertise and experiences in the lab are tucked between these pages (or in this case, a tablet). However, this type of innovation could allow for free-form research and foster more productive workflow.

Are paperless labs the norm now?
The journal Nature discussed this topic in 2012 by examining the James H. Clark Center at Stanford University,California, and Michelle James's research efforts with Alzheimer's disease at the facility. Although all of the components of a standard research space were present, there was one object that looked like a bit of a newcomer to the scene: an iPad.

"Paper has nothing to offer me," James explained to the source.

How did this come to be so? For centuries, a scientist was only as good as the notes he or she took. Accuracy and troubleshooting depended on them. One could even call notebooks a blueprint for the lab. However, since the digital revolution took hold in the U.S. and worldwide, James's mantra is one heard in labs in increasingly popular fashion.

The relationship between technology and lab settings makes sense. After all, scientists have always been on the cutting edge of advancement, and with the enormous amount of data and cloud storage available with these devices, the choice seems obvious.

"This could not have been imagined 20 years ago," Liu Dun, a science historian at the Institute for the History of Natural Science, Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing, explained to Nature. "With just an Internet terminal, scientists today are able to access all important resources of literature in different languages and from different ages, countries and fields."

Is the tide shifting toward portable electronic devices for lab research? While the rest of the public can't seem to function without them, tablets seems to have clear advantages as well as downsides for researchers in a lab setting.

Paper notebooks versus ELNs
First, we have the obvious benefits of ELNs:

Search features: We use Google for just about everything now, and it seems that this search engine has become quite a commodity for researchers in the lab. Rummaging through dozens of paper lab books for data on protein purification feels very 20th century these days.

Tablets are always legible: Scientists don't always have the best handwriting. Having legible content is a simple point to get across in the lab, but it's an important one. In general, the interface of tablets also makes for a more streamlined research process as well.

You can share your information with others in a simple, straightforward way: Remember the age-old question, "Can I copy your notes?"? Well, that task just got a whole lot easier with the addition of the ELNs. Data sharing is obviously a major plus for tablets, especially if you are an undergraduate researcher working with a mentor.

ELNs are interactive: Older data can be archived in a much more efficient way with online note-taking systems. There are also various forms of media available to researchers with ELNs (i.e. podcasts and video) that can be of particular use for genomic and proteomic data, according to Science Squared.

However, ELNs are not a perfect tool for researchers:

They're expensive: Principal investigators often have a difficult time as is finding funding for the most basic research fields. Although these devices are becoming more cost-efficient year after year, it's clear that ELNs are sometimes a luxury in academic lab settings.

Paper lab books follow a universal format: A lab book in 2014 is going to look exactly like a lab book from 1984. Imagine trying to read a floppy disk from the 1980s today - seems like a whole other language, right? Because technology is constantly changing with software and hardware, paper books present a truly universal format for scientists.

More opportunities for foul play: As Science Squared mentioned, lawyers love paper lab notebooks. Keeping lab data out of the cloud simply makes it easier to defend patents or keep away concerns of scientific misconduct.

What types of apps are researchers using?
There are numerous online applications suited for work in the lab, and many of the ELNs available will be able to allow easy access to them. Here are a few of the most common for a research setting:

Evernote: This application could be an easy shift for scientists who are thinking about making the switch to ELNs, but have been used to paper lab books. For instance, you can use control/command-c and -v to copy and paste tables, attach files that can be opened for more in-depth study. Evernote also syncs between devices, so you can pull up your notes on your PC or Mac if you don't have access to your ELN.

Labguru: For researchers that are looking for something a bit more specialized, Labguru could be an excellent option. All of major components of lab research are included, such as material inventory, ordering and storage locations, and tools to help you monitor lab logistics. These can include applications like collaboration and knowledge continuity and lab guru boasts an interface that compiles everything from experiments and results to images and protocols.

Dropbox: Dropboxt is an excellent app for undergraduate and postgrad researchers who want to access files with multiple devices. If you have a dozen papers you want to read, but don't want to go through the hassle of printing them out, you can simply "drop" the file from your ELN then pull it up later for studying on your Mac.

Only time will tell if ELNs and note-taking apps will be commonplace in lab settings, but there's no doubt that these innovations are on the rise.

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