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Digital Lab books: Now or never?

It can have many names: Digital lab book, e-book, electronic lab notebook (ELN). Whatever you want to call it the idea is relatively simple: replace paper lab books with a digital system. This concept has been around since at least the early 2000’s and in theory it sounds like a brilliant idea. In practice, however, their popularity has ebbed and flowed over the last two decades.

Some sectors have been more accepting when it comes to the transition, with Pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer supporting ELN’s since 2011. In contrast, academia has been slow on the uptake; with less than 25% of American universities providing support for any kind of digital note taking system. The number of programs available has increased over the last few years, some are dedicated systems, like SciNote and LabGuru, while others rely on existing software, such as EverNote or Microsoft OneNote.  All of these programs have a lot to offer but after 20 years the promise of digital lab books has yet to be realised. So the question is – what is holding it back? 

New isn’t always better

There are a few reasons people are resistant to replacing pen and paper with a keyboard and screen. The first is a mind-set problem. Writing results on paper is how science has been recorded for the last few millennia, ever since the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans first started scrawling observations of the world onto scrolls. By comparison, computers have only been readily available for a relatively short period of history. Since science has relied on pen and paper for so long it’s no wonder scientists think “this is the way we have always done it, so this is how it will always be done.” This mind-set makes them resistant to change.

A second factor limiting the adoption of ELN’s are the regulatory hurdles. When keeping a lab book scientists have to follow Good Lab Practice (GLP). This means all lab books have to meet a certain standard determined by a regulation authority; essentially the government. Despite the fact that rules for digital lab books have been published some scientists don’t think that ELN’s can meet the same standard and therefore shouldn’t be used.

Finally, one of greatest difficulties in convincing workplaces to use ELN’s are the logistical and financial challenges that come when you change systems. Companies would have to make sure that everyone has access to a laptop or tablet, ensure that every lab has reliable wi-fi, and train every staff member to use the systems. For some people the time and money it would take to achieve this is not worth the investment. This is a particular problem in the public sector; they are notorious for lagging behind when it comes to technological advances, especially compared to their counterpart’s in the private sector.

Overall, a combination of factors limit the wide-spread use of digital lab books. However, like most problems, human stubbornness and comfort with the status quo are the biggest challenges. 

If not now, then when?

During my academic career I have only worked at two different institutions, but at each location the same question is asked at least once a year – why don’t we try moving to digital lab books? The answer has always been “we’ll do it when we have the time.” But using this approach has led to no change at all. 

Before COVID-19 people assumed that the majority of jobs required an office. But then a global pandemic forced us to work from home. Whole industries that just a few months early would have said that they couldn’t ever go digital have moved online and, if they are smart, will keep it up once the pandemic is under control.

As we all return to work scientists might need to take the same approach to digital lab books. The benefits of ELN’s are hopefully obvious; reduced paper usage is better for the planet, increased security from physical damage or loss and the ability to share data and information around the world. I am not the head of a department, chair of a committee or responsible for allocating my institutions budget, but in my experience the benefits of ELN’s outweigh any initial start-up challenges, whether they be administrative or financial. Personally, I have tried to make this change several times in the last few years and I always drift back to pen and paper. However, since returning to the lab at the start of September I have been using EverNote in place of my paper lab book. It has taken a few weeks to establish a good routine, and I am still perfecting the system, but thus far I have found it to be an easy change. To repeat an experiment all I have to do is copy and paste a previous entry, adjusting protocols by adding amendments is easy and now I have access to my lab notes anywhere; which is especially important now that I spend any none lab time working from home. I don’t know if this will be a permeant change but in the new post-Cvoid world it seems more likely than any of my previous attempts.  

Rather than return to “how things were” we need to consider seeing the current disruption as an opportunity to stop, take a breath and examine the systems we have refused to change out of habit. If, at a time when whole industries have moved online, we don’t see an increase in ELN’s, it makes you question if they will ever become widely accepted. Or like pagers and 3D-movies, will they always be seen as a technological fad? 

Featured image is under Pexels License and free to use.

About the Author
  • Steven Gibney 0000-0002-3309-1522

    Steve is currently a member of the EPSRC CDT in Advanced Therapeutics and Nanomedicines at the University of Nottingham. He uses bioelectronics to design new treatments and diagnostic devices. When he's away from the lab he can usually be found lost in the woods or up a mountain. Twitter: @Steve_Gibney

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