Privacy versus sharing: electronic lab notebooks, Facebook and wikis compared

Posted by Rory on September 29th, 2010 @ 9:08 am

Common misconceptions about sharing and privacy in ELNs

A couple of weeks ago I fielded the following question (assertion, really) at a conference on data sharing and storage in biomedical research:

“An electronic lab notebook is not useful because everyone can see everyone else’s work — there’s no privacy.”

To which I responded that good ELNs have a permissions system that allows records to be kept private.

The person who asked the question, still on the attack, then said something to the effect of, that’s no good because people can’t share their data.

To which I responded that the permissions system in a good ELN allows fine level controls so that any record can be completely private, completely public to the entire universe of users, or accessible only to a particular group of users.   In other words, it supports privacy and sharing.

I was a bit taken aback by the aggressiveness of the questioner, and felt quite pleased with myself in that I had, I thought, successfully countered both lines of his attack  on ELNs.  But reflecting on the exchange afterwards, I began to have second thoughts.  The questioner said that he was in a research support role with a group of academic biomedical researchers.  So presumably his comments reflected concerns/preconceptions the researchers he works with have about ELNs.  And judging by the tack he adopted, the prevailing view about ELNs is not positive — they don’t allow privacy, or they don’t allow  sharing, and in any event they are inflexible.

ELNs:  neither Facebook nor wiki

I don’t know how representative these views are.  Since ELNs have yet to be widely adopted by academic scientists, it’s probably the case that few people have first hand experience with them, so whatever the prevailing view is, it will be based on vague impressions rather than a good set of information.    Many labs have adopted wikis for sharing general information like meeting notes and protocols, and most of these wikis will be inflexible, and not offer scope for keeping private records.  So it’s quite possible that people just assume that electronic lab notebooks are beset by the same restrictions.  It’s also possible that people assume ELNs are only capable of replicating the crude and inflexible privacy/sharing regime you get with your Facebook account.  In other words, many people probably project on to ELNs concerns they have with information sharing applications they are familiar with without any understanding of how sharing actually works in ELNs.

Fine-grained and flexible sharing in ELNs and the benefits it brings

In fact there are some key differences between the sharing/privacy system of Facebook, wikis, and ELNs designed for documenting and sharing experimental data. Here are three of them.

1. Sharing and privacy in ELNs is simpler than on Facebook, and more flexible than in wikis.

When you think about it, sharing on Facebook is very complex!  You’ve got three categories of things you can share — things you share, things on your Wall and things you’re tagged in, and then within each of these a whole variety of subcategories.  And then you’ve got a variety of categories of people you can share with — everyone, friends and friends of friends.    Most people ignore most of the sharing  functionality — the system is just too unwieldy.  It’s also very inflexible — the categories of what you can share and what kinds of groups you can share with are decided by Facebook, not you!

Sharing on wikis is at the other end of the spectrum:  exceedingly simple, but it’s even more limiting.  The way most wikis are configured you are part of one or more groups and the pages in that groups or groups can be viewed by everyone in the group.  In other words, there is no privacy!  And of course no flexibility, since the decision about what group(s) you are in is made by the administrator, not you.

In contrast to both Facebook and wikis, sharing and privacy in the best ELNs are (a) simple, and (b) flexible.  They are simple because they don’t require distinctions between different kinds of things that can be shared or between different categories of people that are involved in the sharing.  For any record in the system sharing is set in the same way. They are flexible because a record can be shared with one other person, with everyone, or with any subset of people  using the system at the discretion of the person setting the permissions, and a different sharing regime can be set for each record if so desired.

2.  ELNs give equal weight to individuals and groups

Facebook, like most social media, is designed around individuals — sharing is about individuals creating groups centering on themselves.  Wikis are just the opposite — they are designed around groups — individuals are slotted in to an environment which is focussed on achieving group objectives.  Neither of these extreme orientations is appropriate to  labs.  When you think about what makes a scientific research lab tick, it’s the fact that it is designed to facilitate both group and individual objectives.  So what a lab really needs is a collaboration and communication tool that has been designed with both individuals and the group in mind. Enter the ELN!  As noted, ELNs allow for some records to be completely private.  So a PhD student, for example, can have their private space where their experiments are accessible to no one but themselves.  But ELNs also allow for the flexible sharing described above, so records which everyone needs to see, e.g. lab protocols and meeting notes, can be made accessible to everyone, and the records in certain projects can be restricted to a specified set of users, e.g. just to the group of students working on the project and the PI.

3.  ELNs  enable  sharing of a particular kind of information — experimental data — in the same environment as other general information.

ELNs bring another kind of benefit to labs engaged in creating and sharing scientific data that is not supported by the sharing regime in either wikis or Facebook.  This is that they are specifically designed to handle sharing of experimental data, the bread and butter of labs engaged in scientific research.    They do this by making it easy to put structure into the research record.  And with structure comes better organization, more targeted search, and better archiving.  So current and future members of the lab can more easily find and use data which they, and other members of the lab, have entered into the ELN.

So that’s a brief overview of how ELNs facilitate both sharing and privacy, and enable labs and lab members to record and share experimental data.    They are superior to wikis in these respects, and they don’t suffer from the sharing and privacy concerns people have as a result of their experience with Facebook.   That’s not too surprising since ELNs have been specifically designed with labs in mind!

How to share and store data in an electronic lab notebook

Posted by Rory on September 23rd, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

In this blog I usually look at data sharing from the point of view of the core research unit, the lab.   That was the perspective I adopted a couple of weeks ago in a presentation, Electronic lab notebooks in biomedical research, at the Storing, Accessing and Sharing Data: Addressing the Challenges and Solutions event co-hosted by the Scottish Bioinformatics Forum and S3 in Edinburgh.  I’ll come back to that perspective in a minute, but first I’d like to contrast two very different institutional perspectives on data management described at the conference.

Sanger Institute:  centralized institutional data management

Phil Butcher, head of IT at the Sanger Institute, started with a high level overview of data management issues at Sanger.  He focussed mainly on the rapid growth in the amount of data generated at Sanger, and the other institutes with which it has large scale collaborations, and the issues relating to storing and finding data when there is so much of it.  The impression I came away with is that at Sanger data is viewed as an institutional matter, not something that individual labs or scientists manage or, apparently, have much of a say in.  That makes sense, because the research projects Phil mentioned were all large scale, involving large numbers of scientists, and the generation of huge amounts of data.  The title of Phil’s talk, Scaling up Science and IT: Sanger Institute’s Perspective, reflects the centralized approach.

London Research Institute:  decentralized institutional data management

The next speaker, Jeremy Olsen, head of IT at the London Research Institute, started by saying that based on Phil’s description of Sanger, the London Research Institute was very different indeed, more  a collection of individual research groups.  In describing his LRI  perspective Jeremy said that he would be sticking up for the “little guy”.  He proceeded to briefly overview how research is carried out at the LRI, introducing the various research groups and their research interests.  The LRI represents a very different paradigm from Sanger; at the LRI decentralization rules, as reflected by the title of Jeremy’s talk, Data Growth and Management in a Diverse Life Sciences Environment.  At the LRI there are fundamental issues relating to getting a handle on what research the various groups are involved in, what data they generate and how they manage it. Progress would need to be made on understanding  these issues before it would be possible even to consider a centralized approach to data management and what that might entail.

The lab: bottom up data management

When it came time for my presentation, I started by saying that if Phil was representing the centralized  institutional approach, and Phil was looking at  the “little guys” from an institutional perspective, I was going to look at the issue of data management and sharing from the point of view of the little guy him/herself, i.e. the PI.  In the academic context, it’s important to note that the Sanger model is the exception and the LRI  decentralized model is the rule.  In fact it is almost certainly the case that the LRI, decentralized as it is, is still towards the more organized and centralized end of the spectrum of academic biomedical institutions. That point was reinforced to me when speaking recently with the IT director of a medium – large biomedical research institute in Australia (800 people including 700 scientific staff).  His description of the issues he faced with getting a grip on what data there was in the labs at the institute, how they managed it (if they managed it all), and uncertainty about how to help PIs get a better handle on their data was uncannily reminiscent of Jeremy’s description of the situation at the LRI.

From the perspective of IT managers tasked with, among other things, trying to bring some order to the data generated by the research groups at their institution, to store it in a cost effective fashion and have it archived in a way that is useful in the future, multiple PIs generating ever increasing amounts of data may be a ‘problem’ to be managed or dealt with.  But from the PIs’ point of view it is their data and theirs to manage (or not) as they want.  There is a pretty fundamental difference in outlook here.

Electronic lab notebooks — part of the solution?

In my presentation I asked where electronic lab notebooks might fit into this picture, and whether they could have a role to play in crafting better data management solutions that meet the objectives of both PIs and IT directors.

ELNs tick some of the key boxes IT directors look for in best practice in data storage and sharing, including:

  1. Storing metadata in a structured fashion and ensuring controlled access.
  2. Effectively managing different data types, including attachments and imports.
  3. Allowing improved indexing  and search, through the use of structured metadata.

Electronic lab notebooks can also solve  the key data management problem facing many PIs:  coordinating a wide diversity of data type sets generated by a large number of people within the lab.  They can, that is, if they meet the following key requirements of today’s PIs:

  1. The ELN is flexible and can be set up the way the PI and their lab want it set up.
  2. It’s easy for the lab to transfer to the ELN.
  3. The ELN facilitates better exchange of information between members of the lab and, over time, better archiving.
  4. the ELN is web based and hence accessible anywhere, anytime.

So, electronic lab notebooks can help to solve the key data management  issue faced by  the core unit in academic institutions — labs.  And they provide a platform for data management that IT directors looking at the problem from an institutional perspective can work with.  As such they can be part of a solution which benefits both PIs, who are concerned with the research done in their group, and IT directors, who are concerned with the data generated throughout their institution.

7 Things to consider before adopting an electronic lab notebook for your lab

Posted by Rory on September 16th, 2010 @ 8:43 am

Adopting an electronic lab notebook for your lab is not a decision to be taken lightly. It will take time and effort on your part and is likely to meet with mixed reactions from other lab members — delight/relief from some but also suspicion/hesitancy from others.  It will involve at least some changes in working practices for everyone. So, what things should you consider before you begin the process of looking at what’s out there and what kind of ELN suits you and your lab?

1.  You!

There’s no better place to start with than yourself.  Lab heads/PIs who successfully introduce ELNs in their labs tend to be:

  • Comfortable with computers and software
  • Not afraid to try out new software applications
  • Strong leaders within their labs
  • Well organized
  • Interested in improving collaboration within the lab
  • Interested in the benefits deriving from the lab working together more effectively as a group, such as more research data being captured and archived in a way that it can be found and used in the future.

2.  Other lab members

Let’s assume you’re ready to drive the process of adopting an ELN, but what about the rest of the lab?  There are a couple of things to consider here.  First, are there one or two lab members who are likely to be positive about adopting an ELN and prepared to help you with testing a system and rolling it out?    You will want to test the ELN yourself, but you probably will not want to do all the work involved in bringing others up to speed.  So someone — a research technician, a lab admin person, or just an enthusiast — who is willing to take on that role could be invaluable.  Second, what is the range of attitudes to ELNs among the lab members?  If the general attitude is neutral to positive, you’re in good shape, but if there are significant pockets of resistance you and your ‘allies’ will need to work out a strategy for bringing the sceptics along, e.g. by pairing them up with a mentor.

3.  IT infrastructure

In addition to considering the people side of your lab, you need to consider the IT environment. Do you have a computer system which is reliable and available to host the ELN?  If not, are you or your department in a position to purchase a new computer to host the ELN?

4.  IT support

How good is your IT support and how good is your relationship with them?  Are they available and happy to help with installing the ELN?  If the answer to this question or the previous one  is no, you may want to consider adopting an ELN which is hosted by the provider, who will take care of the system and backup.

5.  Your lab’s data

What kind of data does your lab deal in?  Do you have lots of images?  Where is the data currently stored and how is it managed?  Do you have a shared file system?   Do lab members use paper lab notebooks for experimental data?  You will need to think about these issues because the ELN you adopt will need to be integrated with your data storage set up, and will require some changes in data management, e.g. experimental data can now be kept in the ELN rather than spread around in everyone’s individual paper labbooks.

6.  Lab working practices

Adopting an ELN may prove to be a lot easier than you imagined (or feared!), but it still is going to require some changes of working practices in the lab.  So it would be useful to think about just what current working practices are, and what areas can be improved by adoption of the ELN.  For one thing, with everyone working in the same online environment there is a lot of scope for (a) increased flexibility, and (b) better and more focussed collaboration.  as an example of flexibility, you will  no longer need to arrange a specific time to look at individual paper labbooks, instead you can view and comment on experiments lab members are working on anytime, from anywhere, when you’re at home in the evening or away at a conference.  Adopting an ELN also opens up new ways of collaborating and communicating about research.  Of course people will still chat at the bench or around the coffee machine.  But with an ELN a particular group can work on documenting a single experiment or a broader project together, again from anywhere, any time and if you like other lab members can be given view (but not edit) permission on the experiment or project, so that they can follow the course of the group’s work.

7.  Timing

Last but certainly not least, you’ll want to introduce the ELN at a time that makes sense in terms of your own schedule, the lab’s overall workload, and movement of people in and out of the lab.  I’ve written another post discussing the pros and cons of adoption at different times.

That’s quite a lot to consider, but if the circumstances are right — they don’t need to be perfect of course — the benefits of adopting an ELN for both you and your lab can be substantial, even transformational, and adoption itself is very likely to be a lot easier than you imagined in advance.

Communicating in electronic lab notebooks

Posted by Rory on September 7th, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

People usually think about electronic lab notebooks as tools for documenting research.  Fair enough since people also usually think about them as replacements for paper lab notebooks.  But ELNs are more than just paper notebooks that have ‘gone electronic’, as Andrew Lemon pointed out in an interesting post called The Electronic Laboratory Notebook Trap.  Andrew views the ELN

“as a product idea that hasn’t yet solidified. Think the Internet in the late 1980s or online advertising in the late 1990s . . .  [This is] for the simple reason that scientific organizations are still in the early stages of exploring what can be done when each of their scientists can (passively) connect with the activities of every other scientist, in real time, independent of geography and possibly – organization . . .  Even the term ‘Electronic Laboratory Notebook’ implies a way of thinking about the concept that may not hold up well over time. To me, this term implies something that does what I’m already doing as a scientist with my paper notebook – just in a new medium.”

But with the new medium comes new opportunities, capabilities and demands. Scientists still need to document their research when they move from a paper lab notebook to an electronic lab notebook.  But an electronic lab notebook is also an online environment  (or at least soon will be; ELNs that are not browser based are rapidly being overtaken by the new generation of online ELNs).  And an online environment opens up new possibilities for collaboration and communication.  Talking about one use for ELNs — student-supervisor interaction — Dave Lunt at the University of Hull makes the point that “paper lab books are a source, not method, of student-supervisor interaction“.  You can talk about paper lab books with other members of your group, but you can’t talk together in the paper lab book.

But talking together is exactly what people expect to be able to do in online environments.  In response to  a recent post exploring the question of how ‘social’ ELNs should be, messages were one of the social features that people wanted in an ELN.  It’s not hard to see why.  An electronic lab notebook that includes a messaging capability allows communication to take place when, where and with whom you like. The paradigm of PI and student agreeing a time to meet in an office or the lab to look over the student’s lab notebook so that the PI can comment on it is replaced by the PI being able to keep in touch with and comment on everyone’s work from anywhere, anytime.   So one to one communication is liberated from the confines of meetings in the lab.

That’s a revolution in itself, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg.  Focussing on the PI – student relationship brings to mind Andrew Lemon’s comment that,  “Even the term ‘Electronic Laboratory Notebook’ implies a way of thinking about the concept that may not hold up well over time. To me, this term implies something that does what I’m already doing as a scientist with my paper notebook – just in a new medium.”  The bigger change that an online ELN with communication capabilities makes possible  more effective ways of  communication within the group, and that has the potential to transform the way labs operate.

Historically it’s fair to say, I think, that the majority of academic labs fall into the category of  ‘collections of individual researchers’ rather than ‘groups focussed on joint research’.  The film Naturally Obsessed:  The Making of a Scientist depicts the paradigmatic traditional lab which revolves around a series of one to one relationships between the PI and individual students.  Research in the Shapiro lab portrayed in the film, not surprisingly given that it was filmed 2004 – 2007, was documented using paper lab notebooks.  In a recent post I speculated about how the research dynamics in the lab might have changed had the lab been using an electronic lab notebook.  One of the key things an ELN could do is to open up new channels of communication beyond the traditional PI – individual student relationship.

There are various aspects of the possible new group orientation.  One is that, with even a simple messaging system, PI’s can communicate from anywhere, at any time, not just with individuals but with everyone, from anywhere, anytime. Of course they can already do that with email.  But with a messaging capability in the ELN they can link their communication to specific bits of research and to other pieces of information such as protocols, lab meeting notes, etc., which all now reside  in a single integrated environment.

A second aspect of the new ‘group focus’ is the potential for enhanced communication between lab members.  If two or more people are working on a project together they can communicate just with each other, or with each other and the PI, about the project, again with the ability to link to experiments, samples, and other items relating to the project. And they can do this from home in the evening just as easily as in the lab during the day.

ELNs are still in an early phase of development, and have only been adopted by a tiny percentage of academic labs, so it would be premature to predict what they might evolve into.  But given the advantages that come with more convenient and accessible means of communication that takes place within the same integrated environment where members of the lab are documenting their research, it will be surprising if communication capabilities like messaging and chat do not play an increasingly important role in the development of ELNs going forward.  And it will be equally surprising if this in  turn does not help to stimulate a shift from academic labs being collections of individual researchers to being groups of researchers working together.

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What’s the best time to implement an electronic lab notebook in your lab?

Posted by Rory on September 1st, 2010 @ 7:00 am

It’s September, and the new semester has started or will be starting soon. With new people coming into the lab, new courses to teach, and the start of the new academic year, it’s a good to think about ways of making your lab more productive.  One of the most obvious ways of doing that is to implement an electronic lab notebook for people to record and share experimental data in.  But is this actually the best time to do that?  This post discusses the pros and cons of adopting an ELN at three different times.

1.  When setting up a new lab

The three  biggest advantages of implementing an ELN at the same time you’re setting up your lab are:

  1. Since the ELN is there from the beginning, you will have a single, integrated and  complete record of all the research that has been done, by everyone in the lab, from day one.  And the corollary of this is that you won’t have to worry about integrating data from other sources, as you would if you waited to adopt an electronic lab notebook at a later date.
  2. Having everyone work in the same environment that the electronic lab notebook provides should have a beneficial impact on collaboration and communication, between you and other lab members and also among themselves, and hence will play a useful role in bringing the lab together and creating a positive lab culture.
  3. People are likely to be most open to initiatives at the start of something new, so you are likely to encounter less resistance to implementing an electronic lab notebook when a lab is starting up rather than later, when individual and group work patterns are already in place.

Those are very big wins and it’s hard to argue against them.  But it’s important to be aware of considerations which might make you inclined to do a bit more preparation before introducing an ELN.  These include:

  1. Are you ready to embrace an electronic lab notebook for yourself and your lab and what that entails — working with your IT support to get the system in place, and then administering the system yourself or working with the person who is going to administer it for you?
  2. Have you thought about how to get other lab members on board with the idea of implementing an electronic lab notebook?  Joshua Shaevitz at Princeton makes the point that “the whole lab has to seriously embrace the new use of technology or the system will fail. Before implementing our wiki system, I setup a mock wiki ELN on my laptop and presented it during lab meeting to show everyone the benefits firsthand. I especially wanted to convince them that the new system would not generate extra work, but would instead make their lives easier.”
  3. Do you have the necessary IT infrastructure in place for an electronic lab notebook?  With a service where someone else is hosting the electronic lab notebook, there is less to think about, but you still need to make sure that the network speed on the computers your lab members will be using to access the service is not too slow, and that they are able to use an up to date browser — like Firefox, Safari, Chrome or Internet Explorer 8.  If you are setting the electronic lab notebook up on your own server you’ll also need to make sure that your IT support is aware of your plans and willing to help, that the servers you will be using have sufficient capacity for the data that will flow through the electronic lab notebook, or if you will be using  a new server, the specs that will be required for running the ELN.

2.  At the start of a new academic year

The same considerations apply if you decide to set up an electronic notebook at the start of a new academic year, and some additional pros and cons also come into play.

On the plus side, a new year, possibly with some new members of the lab, is always a good time to introduce new ‘things’, be they pieces of equipment or software, or new practices, because people are more likely to be open minded about trying them out.  Also on the plus side, unlike setting up a new lab, with an established lab you will have a good read on people’s work practices, including who is likely to be in favor of adopting and electronic lab notebook, and who is likely to be opposed, so you should be able to design an effective evaluation period, where for example you might have several enthusiasts test out a new system and, if it meets with their approval and yours, assist in mentoring other members of the lab when it comes time for implementation.  Or you might have a research or administrative assistant take on the task of evaluation, again by this time someone you have worked with and trust.

The biggest downside of adopting an electronic lab notebook at the beginning of the term or semester is that you — and others in the lab — will probably be even busier than usual, and evaluating the ELN may either get lost in the shuffle or not receive the attention it needs.

3.  In connection with starting work on a new grant

Adopting an electronic lab notebook to coincide with work on a new grant is probably even easier than adopting at the beginning of a term or semester.  With a new grant you have an identifiable, and probably a large, project, which in any event will require thought about who is going to be involved, the division of labor, how the project is going to be organized, how data will be captured and recorded, possibly how data needs to be organized and archived to satisfy the requirements of the granting body, etc.  So, it’s very natural to introduce the idea of adopting and electronic lab notebook as a vehicle for documenting the work done in connection with the grant, and, beyond that, other work as well.

A second benefit is that the grant will have a starting date, a schedule, and deadlines, so there will be an impetus which everyone will feel to actively push through an evaluation and then, when the electronic lab notebook has been adopted, to push ahead with implementation.

There are no obvious cons to adopting an electronic lab notebook in conjunction with the start of a new grant, but an additional consideration may need to be taken into account.  This is whether the ELN will be used just for the research associated with the grant or for all the lab’s research.