What’s in a name? Electronic lab notebook versus Sample management . . . system

Posted by Rory on March 21st, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

Electronic lab notebook

Sometimes the way things are described can tell you a lot.  Take ‘electronic lab notebook’, for example.  That’s  a noun, and it describes a recognized category. Electronic lab notebook is a subset of a larger category, lab notebook (which itself is a subset of an even broader category, notebook).  How did lab notebook and electronic lab notebook become established as categories? Presumably that happened because people began to, first, differentiate lab notebooks, and then electronic lab notebooks, as particular kinds of notebooks, through their repeated use for carrying out particular tasks in a particular context, in this case the recording of experimental data, first on paper and then in electronic form.

Sample management . . . system

Compare that with sample management.  People talk about sample management . . . systems.  There is no categorical noun to describe sample management.  Instead what you have is a description of an activity.   Like recording experimental data, managing samples is a core activity in biomedical labs.    In fact they are the two central activities in biomedical labs.  So why has electronic lab notebook become a category described with its own noun, whereas sample management remains an activity?

Therein lies a tale:  history and functionality

First let’s look at the history.  As noted, the term ‘electronic lab notebook’ has a powerful provenance — it is a child of lab notebook and a grandchild of notebook.  So it describes an activity whose more generalised predecessors have been granted the status of categories for a long time.  And that’s probably related to the fact that the notebook function — taking notes — and its specialized offshoot — electronic lab notebook — are so fundamental to the activities to which they relate; notetaking in the case of ‘notebook’, and documenting experimental data electronically  in the case of ‘electronic lab notebook’.

What about managing samples?  People have doubtless been ‘managing’ ‘samples’ for a long time.  But they clearly have not thought of this as a fundamental activity in the same way that note taking is a fundamental activity.  So, sample management does not have anything like the provenance of ‘notebook’ .  What about functionality?  How does sample management stack up against documenting experimental data in terms of its importance in research?  Yes, it’s one of the two core activities of biomedical labs, but you can plausibly argue that it is a means to an end, in that samples are there, and hence need to be managed, primarily so that they can be analyzed in experiments.  In that sense they are ‘only’ another kind of data.    And so samples can sit alongside other kinds of data like images (interestingly images, like samples, are ‘managed’, so image management remains an activity and has not yet become a category) and written notes, that appear to be viewed primarily as ‘just’ material, or raw material, that goes into the experimental record.

What lies ahead?

If there is any merit in this analysis, it may be that sample management (and image management) will never become named categories in and of themselves.  Rather, as electronic notebooks evolve to become better able to handle management of samples and images, these activities will be subsumed under the electronic lab notebook framework.  Time will tell!

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Where to find answers to science questions?

Posted by Rory on March 8th, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

That’s a pretty big question, and when I typed it into Google there were 611,000,000 results!  I did that because I was interested in learning where people are going online these days to find answers to questions about science.  I was particularly interested in learning how many people are turning to what could be called ‘social’ sites to find answers to their questions.  What I discovered was interesting, and somewhat surprising.  In an attempt to make sense of the multitude of sources of information available, I divided up the sites people are using into four categories.

Q&A sites

The top hit on Google was Answers.com.  For those who don’t already know it, Answers.com is a general purpose Q&A site.  You can browse by category, including ‘science’,and also subcategories, like ‘biology’ and ‘neuroscience’.  You can also do searches on any term — these are done on Wikipedia, which is linked in with Answers.com.  Answers.com is both participative, in that anyone can ask or answer a question or improve an answer to a question, and ‘social’ to a degree, in that you can follow a question, and rate a question.

A quick look at the questions under the neuroscience subcategory gave me the impression that the site is used primarily by the general public and students.  That’s because the questions are fairly general, e.g. ‘What type of neuron is a mirror neuron?’  There are not a lot of specialist questions that practising scientists would ask each other.

There are lots of other sites that provide answers to general science questions, but Answers.com seems to be the biggest, most used and best resourced.  Quora is the new but rapidly developing kid on the block.  It’s structured from the ground up as a ‘social’ service, and you can follow both questions and people.  It will be interesting to see whether it is able to establish itself as a resource that is widely used by the science community.

Educational sites

There are dozens if not hundreds of sites that provide information about  and in some cases resources for doing science.  Many of these educational sites also answer science questions, usually of a fairly general nature, and they are aimed at the general public and students.   Typically the questions are answered by the site’s own experts or scientists in the the site’s network, i.e. the communication flow is one way, and these sites are not ‘social’ — i.e. no following of answers or people, no rating of questions, and limited or no opportunity for participation or communication beyond asking the question.  This limited functionality may be explained because in most cases the Q&A function is an adjunct to the main purpose of the site, which is to educate and/or entertain.  A good example is The Naked Scientists, which focuses on science podcasts.  It has a Q&A section, and in the Medicine section a typical question is, “How are blood cells made?”

Discipline-specific forums

A third category of Q&A sites are specialist , discipline-specific forums.  Examples of these are Biology Online and Chemical Forums.  Forums, arranged in a Q&A format, are at the heart of Biology Online.  The forums are arranged around subdisciplines, e.g. cell biology and genetics.  The questions here range from general to specialist, with specialist predominating, e.g. ‘Is there any difference between matured and active macrophage?  Biology Online is open, in that anyone can ask or answer a question, but the Q&A part of the site is not very social, i.e. no rating of questions, no following of questions, and no communication outside the forums.  The site also has other sections, e.g. Articles, Tutorials, and Books.  Users are encouraged to contribute to these, but again there are no social features, and these parts of the site appear to be less widely used than the forums.

Chemical Forums, in contrast, is solely focused on forums.  It has a variety of forums, focused on disciplines like organic chemistry and materials chemistry.  These contain mainly specialist questions.  There are also forums for categories of users like high school chemistry, undergraduate chemistry. and ‘citizen chemistry’.  The forums in Chemical Forums, like those in Biology Online, are organized in a traditional Q&A format, and  no ‘social’ elements like following have been introduced.

Specialist information services

In recent years a new breed of free services have sprung up providing information of various kinds to targeted scientific communities.  An example is Bitesize Bio, an ‘online magazine and community for molecular and cell biology researchers that provides daily tech tips and news articles on advances in molecular and cell biology’.   Bitesize Bio provides a variety of content, including articles and webinars, aimed at scientists working in molecular and cell biology labs.   ‘Questions’ is one of its major focuses.  Questions submitted to Bitesize Bio often have a practical bent, as the following example indicates:  ‘Does anyone know why we use different pH’s when making the stacking and resolving parts in protein gels?’  Anyone can submit answers, so the Questions section operates like a traditional forum.    The site itself has a number of social elements, but these have not been incorporated into the Questions section.


So there are the results of a quick trawl of the landscape, a bit of perspective on where those interested in science are going to find answers online, and the kinds of resources  available to them.  Here are some of the conclusions I took away from the exercise:

  • There is an insatiable desire to learn about science and how to do science among the general public, students and professional scientists themselves
  • A bewildering embarrassment of resources exists to satisfy this appetite for knowledge
  • These resources take a wide variety of forms and appeal to targeted segments of the overall base of knowledge seekers
  • Many but not all of the knowledge providers are incorporating a ‘social’ element into their Q&A facilities, often in an incremental and experimental way.