Whether you’re a first year grad student or a seasoned life scientist, you’ve probably been part of the great debate of written versus electronic lab notebooks at one point or another. Here I’ll give you an overview of the pros and cons of the digital notebook to help you decide if you should make the switch.
Just the other day I was checking out at a local department store when the cashier asked me if I would like a paper receipt or an electronic copy sent to my email, and I have to admit, I paused and stared at her blankly for about 15 seconds as I had a mini-debate in my head over which I would prefer. I hadn’t been offered this option before, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Even when you go to the doctor, everything is now done through an electronic health record, and when you want to order a pizza, the quickest way to do so is to place your order online.
Over the past decade, the use of digital applications has exponentially increased, replacing paper as the primary means of record keeping in almost every field. The field of life science is no exception—the use of digital laboratory notebooks is growing in both academia and industry. However, there are still many life scientists who are reluctant to make the switch, which is understandable. I’ll address the pros of the debate first and then discuss some of the important cons. All of this information will help guide your decision about whether it’s time to transition into the electronic laboratory notebook or not.
The Pros of an Electronic Lab Notebook
I have found that one of the hardest things to do when it comes to a lab notebook is staying organized. I try to plan my entries out in advance so they make sense when I go back to read them, but they’re often illegible and messy. Graphs I’ve pasted in begin to spew from the edges of the notebook after a few weeks and often I’m lucky if I’ve even left enough room to paste them in at all since it takes me a few days to get around to actually printing them out.
Electronic lab notebooks do a great job of providing tools to keep the lab notebook functional and organized. One key feature that allows this is that ELNs are searchable. When you need to find the procedure you followed on an experiment you did six months ago, you can simply search for the topic and find it within seconds rather than look page-by-page through written notebooks. If that alone doesn’t make you excited about digital notebooks, most ELNs also allow you to tag your experiments and data as well as organize them into categories.
Another feature of the ELN that helps improve organization is the use of timestamps. Many digital notebook interfaces allow you to turn on automatic time stamping. When you start a step in your protocol, it will time stamp that time to your page. This is extremely useful when it comes to repeatability of experiments and having a trail of steps in case your notebook is ever audited for some type of publication.
Paper notebooks are nearly impossible to use efficiently for group projects or research collaborations—often times, each member of the team has his or her own notebook. With the electronic lab notebook, sharing notebooks is easy. Many platforms allow multiple users to edit an individual notebook, and sharing is usually a built in feature of the program. Files can be also be shared through uploading the ELN to Dropbox or converting it to a PDF that can be printed or emailed. Sharing can also occur in a variety of other file formats depending on the software that you choose to use.
A bonus feature that some of the interfaces have is a messaging tool. Colleagues can send direct messages to other users on the program or set up alerts and reminders. SMS text messaging can also be set up to alert a user when a particular step in the protocol is finished.
ELNs are flexible in so many ways. First, there are several programs available to choose from. You can use programs that are designed for use as a lab notebook such as LabArchives or LabGuru or you can use Microsoft OneNote or Evernote as your lab notebook interface since they share many of the same features.
Additionally, ELNs allow you to add text, pictures, equations, graphs, charts, links, and videos right into a page of your notebook. This allows you to take your results section to the next level by having the ability to input a variety of results straight from the instrument used to obtain them. For example, many programs allow you to connect an infrared spectrometer directly to the program so that spectra can be uploaded as quickly as they become available.
Even if you prefer to handwrite your notes, there is an ELN for you. Many interfaces allow notes to be written using a stylus on a tablet PC or iPad. You can choose whether to leave the imported notes in your handwriting or to convert them to text that is searchable.
Storage and accessibility.
Depending on how you set up your electronic lab notebook, you can have access to it virtually anywhere. Notebooks that use a cloud service for storage can be easily accessed through any internet connection and on all of your devices. However, you can also choose to store your ELN locally on your computer’s hard drive or a removable storage device.
Using an ELN makes backing up your data effortless since you can store a copy on the cloud or locally—you will essentially have multiple backups in multiple locations.
Security is a hot topic when it comes to digital notebooks, so it will be discussed as both a pro and a con. On the pro side, ELNs feature password protection. While a written lab notebook may easily be picked up and stolen from your lab, the ELN cannot. With a password needed to access your notebook, your data is safe, especially if stored on a removable storage device.
The Cons of an Electronic Lab Notebook
When it comes to the cons of security for electronic lab notebooks, one of the biggest fears of using an ELN is hacking. Although they are password protected, if you store your notebook on the cloud, it is still being stored in a database somewhere. This could even be internationally based, and the security measures being employed by the company are often unknown.
Over the past few years, ELNs have been modified to become more user friendly. First of all, when you have handwritten your lab notes for many years, it can be difficult to make the switch to typing. At the beginning, typing your lab notebook may take longer. If this is the case, you can start by having your protocol and other resources uploaded into your ELN, but take your notes while you are actually in lab by hand or using a tablet PC as described above. If you choose to do them by hand, you can scan, transfer, or copy your notes into the ELN afterwards.
It can also be risky to bring a laptop or tablet into the lab if you are working with materials that may spill and cause damage to your devices. A simple way to avoid this problem is to put your tablet into a Ziploc bag when you take it into the lab. You can still use the touch screen through the bag and through your gloves.
The market of ELN providers has been changing rapidly over the past few years. With an unsettled market, it is hard to know which interfaces will be around 10 years from now. Not knowing how long a program will be available in the future leads to the risk of not being able to open a saved notebook file. With evolving technologies, file formats can also change. In order to avoid this issue, save a copy of your lab notebook in plain text, HTML, CSV, and/or PDF. These file formats are common and will remain popular in the future so you will always have access to your ELN.
While some ELNs are free, some cost a monthly or yearly fee. Others have a free version as well as an upgrade option that costs money only if you want to store more than the complimentary version allows. Remember that your handwritten lab notebooks also cost money.
After going over the pros and cons of digital lab notebooks, I would highly recommend trying one if it fits the needs of your lab. How do you know if the ELN is right for you? That’s going to depend on the level of security required and your ability to adapt to changing technology. If you work in a more flexible lab with a tech savvy team – start exploring this option.
GoldBio Staff Writer
Rebecca is a medical student at the University of Missouri.
She previously worked as a lab technician while studying
biology at Truman State University. As an aspiring
reproductive endocrinologist with an interest in global
health, Rebecca has traveled across Central America on
medical mission trips. With a passion for the life sciences,
she enjoys writing for GoldBio.
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