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How to evaluate the electronic lab notebook eCAT in 6 easy steps

Posted by Rory on November 22nd, 2010 @ 11:08 am

Over on the Electronic lab notebook blog I’ve just written a general post on how to evaluate software, with a particular focus on electronic lab notebooks.  In this post I’m going to guide you through the process of evaluating eCAT.

Step 1:  Poke around the Axiope website

Spend some time on the Axiope website.  You can learn a lot from the website about both eCAT and Axiope.  We try to be as transparent as possible — the website explains how much eCAT costs,  that there is a  free Personal version, and what the differences between the Personal version and the two group versions — Install and Team Hosted — are.  The website goes through what eCAT does — with videos and text that focus on the practicalities of setting up and using the software.  In addition, you can get a perspective on how other people are using it, and what they like about it, from the Who uses eCAT section.  From all  this you should be able to get a decent feel for whether eCAT looks as if it will be able to solve your problem.

Step 2:  Decide which version of eCAT to try

There are three versions of eCAT.  The free Personal version is for individual use. It’s for individual scientists who want a better way of recording and organizing research data, and value the ability to put structure into the record they keep of their research.  The other two versions, Install and Team Hosted, are for labs.   The Install version is installed on your computers behind your firewall, and it has a big advantage — your files can be ‘mapped’ to eCAT so that eCAT can see them and and there is no need to upload files.  The Team Hosted version is hosted by Axiope.  You still get administratrive control, but you don’t have to worry about computers or backup, we take care of that.  It’s useful for labs that don’t have a computer system available to install eCAT on or aren’t confident about their IT support.

Step 3:  Sign up for a trial

Once you’ve decided which version you want, you can sign up for your free Personal account and/or for a free trial of the Team Hosted or Install versions.  Some people sign up for a Personal account and get a free trial of one of the group versions.   Signing up for a Personal account or a Team Hosted trial is very straightforward — after you register Axiope sends your login details, and you can login and get started.  The Install version works a bit differently.  After you register you are taken to instructions for downloading and installing eCAT.  But again, once eCAT has been installed, you are ready to begin testing.

Step 4:  Set up testing accounts

With both the Team Hosted and Install versions, at an early stage you will want to login as the admin user and use the administrative privileges the admin user has to set up accounts for others in your group who will be testing eCAT.  That’s descibed here for Install.  For Team Hosted, logged in as the admin user, you will need to set up attachment stores for the other user accounts you set up.   You need to first create the user’s account, then save their information, and then go back into the user and edit it again to create the attachment store.   Each user will need to set up a store folder to access their files with the attachment store that has been set up for them.  The instructions for that are here.  There is also a video on how to organize your lab with eCAT, which might be worth watching before you get started setting up user accounts.

Step 5:  Try it out!

If you are a Personal user, you will have skipped Step 4, and you can just  login and get your teeth into eCAT.  Individual testers of the Team Hosted and Install versions can do the same once the person acting as admin has set up their accounts.  There is also a Getting Started video that many people find useful.

As you put eCAT through its paces there are a couple of things to remember.  First, you need to keep the problem you are hoping eCAT will solve in the back of your mind and ask yourself periodically how good eCAT is at solving the problem.  But at the same time it’s a good idea to keep something of an open mind, because using  eCAT may put the problem in a  different perspective, or even bring you to the realization that you have a  different problem than you thought you did at the outset and/or that eCAT is really useful even though it only partially solves your original problem.

Second, how good is Axiope at explaining how to use eCAT?  Are the how to videos and video interviews with users informative?  How about the brief videos inside eCAT explaining how to do certain things and perform certain tasks?  And how about the User Guide? Is it easy to navigate?  To the point?

Step 6:  When in doubt, ask

As you go through the testing, there are bound to be some things you don’t understand and for which there does not appear to be a ready explanation in the User Guide, the website, or the videos embedded in eCAT.  When this happens, don’t hesitate to ask  us by sending an email to support@axiope.com   And judge us by our response.  How long does it take us to respond?  Is our answer responsive to your question?  Is it honest?  Helpful?

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Free electronic lab notebooks: Evernote and eCAT compared

Posted by Rory on September 2nd, 2010 @ 9:19 am

The Personal version of  eCAT is primarily used by postdocs and graduate students who want an electronic lab notebook  tailored to lab work.  In this post I am going to try to unpick the details of what that means — what kinds of things can you do in eCAT that you can’t do in general purpose free ‘ELNs’ (which when you scratch the surface are usually note taking devices of one sort or another)?  As a way of getting at the answers I’ll compare the Personal version of eCAT with the most popular note-taking software, Evernote, which is  used by lots of scientists.

First, some  things the free versions of eCAT and Evernote have in common:

  1. They’re both online and accessible anywhere, anytime.
  2. They’re both used by scientists to record and manage data from their research.
  3. They’re both simple to use.

But here are four things eCAT has that Evernote doesn’t have, and which help make eCAT a great tool for lab scientists:

  1. eCAT “brings structure to your experiments automatically.  Since you are working with project folders you have your own experiments, and you also add protocols, and you add the data and you add whatever electronic stuff you get during the experiments to that folder.  So everything gets sorted by date and time.  It’s much more structure, automatically”.  (Andreas Johansson, Lund University).
  2. eCAT comes preloaded with templates specifically designed for capturing and recording different kinds of scientific research.  There is a generic experiment template, and there is also an  antibody template, a freezer box template, a protocol template, a construct template, etc.
  3. eCAT makes it dead simple to build records of your own design, so you can create structures that allow you to  to effectively capture the kind of research you are doing.
  4. eCAT lets you add files to records.  So for example you can attach a spreadsheet with numerical data relating to an experiment, and confocal images of data which is analyzed in the experiment, to the experiment record.

Those capabilities are pretty useful.  That’s why more and more postdocs and graduate students, like Matt Nicotra at the University of Pittsburgh, are turning to eCAT as an ideal tool for  organizing and managing their experimental data.  Watch Matt talking about how he uses eCAT in this video.

http://www.axiope.com/electronic-lab-notebook/video/ecat_3.3.0/user/matt/matt.flv

Adding structure to your research with databases in the electronic lab notebook eCAT

Posted by Rory on August 2nd, 2010 @ 7:00 am

In the last post I talked about various ways of making use of templates in eCAT.  In this post I’d like to touch on a way in which you can add another layer of structure to research data in eCAT — databases.

eCAT makes it easy to construct databases — this happens automatically when you add links between records.  eCAT comes preloaded with three example databases.  Let’s take a brief look at two of them to get an idea of the kinds of databases you might want to create in eCAT.

The first example

shows how a series of records can be linked togethe rin eCAT  to manage inventory.  Each of the items in green represents a different class of record in eCAT.  Boxes (Freezer, Shipping) contain bidirectional links to the items stored in them, in this case Antibodies. Freezer Boxes also are linked to their storage container, in this case Freezer. The Shipping Box class is not contained in a Freezer, but does have a link to an external Internet URL – the tracking website for the courier company. This database comes with built-in documentation in records of class Documentation Page, which contain links to all the different classes used in the database.

In the second example

the Experiment records contain links to Lab Protocols, Mutagenic Oligos, etc. Other classes are generally not linked, but Project records are connected in a parent-daughter manner to Experiments.  So, Professor Mike Shipston lab at Ednburgh University is able to record its experimental data in a single integrated environment, with multiple links to other data the lab deals with such as protocols, constructs and oligos.

Databases for managing inventory and integrating your experiments in the broader context of your lab’s research are just two of the virtually infinite ways in which you can organize your data in eCAT.  Its this kind of flexibility that leads to comments like the following from Mike Shipston:

“The great thing about the eCAT electronic lab notebook is, its incredibly flexible in terms of how you can set it up.”

Using the electronic lab notebook eCAT as a replacement for a paper lab notebook

Posted by Rory on July 26th, 2010 @ 7:00 am

Wikipedia defines electronic lab notebook as “a software program designed to replace paper lab notebooks“.  So how can you use eCAT to replace something that looks like this?

Let’s look at this question first from the individual’s point of view and then from the lab’s point of view.  Here’s what Andreas Johansson of Lund University in Sweden says:

“I use eCAT for everything in the laboratory when I need to make a note of anything.  I use it for my experiments and my protocols.  But I also use it for things I didn’t use it for before I had an electronic lab notebook.  I use it for digital photos, so protein gels, screenshots of my HPC runs, screenshots of the small things I see during my experiment.  Before I would have just made a small note about it, now I have a photo of it.  And I also add time stamps during an experiment so I can easily see at what point I did a certain thing.

The main result is very very large quality improvements.  It also brings structure to your experiments automatically.  Since you are working with project folders you have your own experiments, and you also add protocols, and you add the data and you add whatever electronic stuff you get during the experiments to that folder.  So everything gets sorted by date and time.

And here’s what Alex Swarbrick at the Garvan Institute in Sydney, Australia says about his lab’s use of eCAT:

Everyone uses it as an electronic notebook, so they can compile the diverse collections of data that we generate as biologists, such as images and spreadsheets. We use to it to take minutes of meetings. We also use it to manage our common stocks of antibodies, plasmids and so on. Finally, perhaps the most important feature for us is the ability to link records, reagents and experiments. This allows us, for example, to connect an experimental mouse with the tube containing its tissues in the freezer, to the 6 different experiments (conducted over a year) that analysed those tissues in different ways. Managing this kind of ‘metadata’ is absolutely essential to our work, and very difficult to do without tools like eCAT.”

Of the many benefits of using eCAT as an electronic lab notebook noted by Andreas and Alex, three are worth highlighting:

  1. eCAT serves as  a ‘paper lab notebook plus’ because you can use it to record not only garden variety experimental data but also things like images and spreadsheets which can’t conveniently be entered into a paper lab notebook.
  2. eCAT allows you to manage other kinds of information such as notes from meetings, protocols and inventory, as well as experimental data, in a single, integrated environment.
  3. Unlike a paper lab notebook, which by definition is a tool for individuals, eCAT is a group tool that allows controlled  sharing of data.

4 things postdocs and graduate students like about the electronic lab notebook eCAT

Posted by Rory on July 22nd, 2010 @ 7:00 am

Last time some PIs told us what they like about eCAT.  This time its the turn of postdocs and graduate students.

  1. The thing I like best about eCAT is it’s very simple to use.  I looked at some other electronic lab notebooks and they were complicated or overly designed.  eCAT has a very simple interface.  It’s very flexible so I can just go in and immediately start writing my lab notebook the way I used to with a paper lab notebook.  It’s simple, I don’t have to spend any time figuring it out.” (Matt Nicotra, University of Pittsburgh).
  2. “It also brings structure to your experiments automatically.  Since you are working with project folders you have your own experiments, and you also add protocols, and you add the data and you add whatever electronic stuff you get during the experiments to that folder.  So everything gets sorted by date and time.  It’s much more structure, automatically. (Andreas Johansson, Lund University)
  3. “Members of our labs are starting to realize the power of allowing them to more natively integrate electronic sources of data (documents, images, web links, etc.), which was not something readily accomplished with a paper notebook.” (Morten Jensen, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Hoang Pham, Lawrence Berkeley Labs)
  4. “The great thing that we saw in eCAT was a system that could be suited to varying needs as they change over time. It had a nice architecture in place that could be well suited to our needs right now, but also one that was flexible enough to handle all kinds of different data needs as they emerge in the future.” (Trevor Covert, Washington State University)

Why not see for yourself?  Sign up for a  free trial of the Team Hosted or Install versions of eCAT, or get your own free Personal account!