Are electronic lab notebooks for individuals or groups?

Posted by Rory on November 11th, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

I wrote a post last week over on Bitesize Bio comparing electronic lab notebooks to other collaborative tools like wikis and Google Docs.  What was interesting is that most of the people who commented on the post were looking not for a collaborative tool but for something they could use to document their own research, i.e. an individual tool.  This lack of clarity about whether electronic lab notebooks are intended for group or individual use dogs much of the discussion about  ELNs, which tends to get bogged down in debates  about particular features people would like to see in an electronic lab notebook.   See for example the discussion currently going on here.

I thought I’d try to unpick some of the confusion by separating out what elements are essential in electronic lab notebooks used by both groups and individuals, from features that are useful only for groups.

Features for groups and individuals

I have argued previously that the ability to add structure to the research record is the key distinguishing feature of an electronic lab notebook.  That’s because with structure you can replicate online what has traditionally gone in a paper lab notebook, and so the electronic lab notebook can become a replacement for the paper lab notebook.  So in my view neither simple online note-taking devices nor wikis qualify as electronic lab notebooks because they don’t let you add structure to the record of your research.  In the majority of cases people who have adopted note-taking devices or wikis use them along with, not instead of, paper lab notebooks.

Putting structure into the research record is equally important for both groups and individuals who are documenting their research.  And for individuals, that’s it!  The ability to create an online structured record of their research is really all they need.

Features for groups

Groups of researchers need two additional things in an electronic lab notebook, the ability to:

  • Share research data and information, and
  • Communicate about their research

Sharing research data and information

By definition a group of researchers needs to share data and information.    An electronic lab notebook needs to allow the group to do this in a controlled way.    It therefore needs a permissions system that allows some records to be kept private and other records to be shared with everyone or with selected members of the group.  To do this it needs to have an administrator.

Communicating

In order to collaborate effectively groups of researchers need to be able to communicate about their research. Obviously there are plenty of ways to do that outside the electronic lab notebook.  But that’s limiting because it’s not possible, or at least not convenient, for members of the group to communicate about the research they are undertaking in the context of the research itself.  Therefore to be fully effective an electronic lab notebook should include an internal means of communication, e.g. a messaging or notifications capability, and this should include the ability to link the messages or notifications to the record of the research, e.g. experiment records.

Conclusion

In conclusion, electronic lab notebooks can be useful for both individuals and groups. Both individual and group users need the structuring capability electronic lab notebooks provide.  And groups in addition need to use the collaborative and communication capabilities of ELNs.  Beyond that it’s all about features, which are important, but I think it’s useful to separate the woods from the trees, and diving in to a discussion about features without thinking about these broader issues often proves to be unproductive.

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Who are electronic lab notebooks for?

Posted by Rory on October 13th, 2010 @ 10:48 am

In last week’s post I looked at what electronic lab notebooks are for, and said that they enable groups of researchers to conveniently carry out four central aspects of the research process:

  • Record experimental data and other kinds of information
  • Add structure to the data and information
  • Share the data and information
  • Communicate about their research

The answer to the question, ‘who are electronic lab notebooks for?’ is implied within that statement, namely ‘groups of researchers’.  This week I’d like to zero in on the makeup of a typical group of researchers in an academic lab, and ask the question, among that group, who benefits from use of an electronic notebook and why?  Just the PI?  Postdocs? Graduate students?  Research assistants and technicians?

PIs

Lets start with the PI.  In most cases the PI drives the decision to adopt an electronic lab notebook.  PIs benefit from their lab using an electronic lab notebook in lots of ways — some of the things they like include:

  1. Having everyone in the lab working in an integrated environment.
  2. Having everyone using common structures to document their research, e.g. for experiments and protocols.
  3. For online electronic lab notebooks, the ability to access their own work, and that of other members of the lab, 24/7, from any web browser, when they are at home in the evening or on the other side of the world at a conference.
  4. The ability for lab members to conveniently work in groups.
  5. The ability to link experimental data with other kinds of information, e.g. protocols, and with physical things like reagents.
  6. Having an integrated searchable archive of the lab’s work that allows them and other lab members to find and make use of work done by existing lab members and those who have already left the lab.

Postdocs

Postdocs don’t have the same global view on the lab’s needs as PIs, nor do they have the PI’s long term interest in the efficiency of the lab or creating a usable, searchable archive of its research.  But they almost certainly will be working closely with others in the lab — the PI, one or more graduate students, and perhaps a research associate or technician — on their own projects and other projects involving lab members.  For that they will benefit from many of the same group advantages of using and electronic lab notebook that are valued by PIs:

  1. Having everyone using common structures to document their research, e.g. for experiments and protocols.
  2. For online electronic lab notebooks, the ability to access their own work, and that of other members of the lab, 24/7, from any web browser, when they are at home in the evening or on the other side of the world at a conference.
  3. The ability for lab members to conveniently work in groups.
  4. The ability to link experimental data with other kinds of information, e.g. protocols, and with physical things like reagents.

In addition, PIs are likely to particularly appreciate the benefits an electronic lab notebook brings in terms of documenting their own research, including:

  1. The automatic introduction of structure into their research record.
  2. Ease of use.
  3. Having data well organized in a form that it can conveniently be incorporated into presentations and papers.

PhD students

PhD students, and other graduate students, are likely to value these last three benefits just as highly as postdocs.  And they, too, benefit from the group aspects of the electronic lab notebook. For example,with an electronic lab notebook they can share information and ideas online with others in the lab — the PI and other students whose brain they want to pick or whose experiments they are keeping up with.   An electronic lab notebook means easier access to the PI — it’s no longer necessary to corral the PI during office hours to look at your paper lab notebook — with an electronic lab notebook you can send the PI a message with a link to your latest experiment and ask the PI to comment when he or she has time.

Unlike the PI and postdocs, at the end of the day graduate students are focussed on getting a degree, and that means their own work is of paramount importance.  In this respect they are likely to particularly appreciate the fact that electronic lab notebooks provide the flexibility for some records to be shared and others to kept entirely private.  So graduate students (and of course others in the lab) benefit from the group and sharing capabilities of the electronic lab notebook while at the same time having their own private space.  They can keep some records private forever, and other records private until they are ready to be shared, or reviewed, by others in the lab.

Research associates and technicians

What makes the life of research associates and technicians different from that of PIs, postdocs and graduate students is that their focus  is not their own research but  the work of  others.  They are supporting others, and  helping to organize the lab and ensure that the lab and its equipment, computers, and systems are running as well as possible.  In that regard they will from the enhanced structure, organization, and communication the introduction of an electronic lab notebook brings to the lab.

  1. With the structured records you can set up in  an electronic lab notebook it is much easier to get buy in from everyone to use common forms and formats for things that everyone in the lab needs to use, like protocols.
  2. With an electronic lab notebook lab members can document their experiments in the same online environment that is used to store and share general information like meeting notes and protocols — that makes for much better organization.
  3. With the electronic lab notebook’s messaging system technicians and research associates can communicate with lab members 24/7, and do this in a targeted way — for example if they have a question about a protocol someone has submitted, they can send a message with the question and insert a link to the protocol, making it easier for the recipient to respond quickly.

The bottom line?  Everyone in the lab benefits from the introduction of an electronic lab notebook!

What are electronic lab notebooks for?

Posted by Rory on October 6th, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

1.  Introduction

Electronic lab notebooks enable groups of researchers to conveniently carry out four central aspects of the research process:

  • Record experimental data and other kinds of information
  • Add structure to the data and information
  • Share the data and information
  • Communicate about their research

Electronic lab notebooks differ from other tools used in recording experimental data, like paper lab notebooks and electronic media such as word documents, spreadsheets,and wikis, in that they enable researchers to carry out all four of these functions in an integrated, ideally online, environment.

2.  Recording experimental data and other information

Electronic lab notebooks enable recording of experimental data, and other information like meeting notes and protocols, in two ways. First, they allow import of data which has already been captured elsewhere — e.g. in word documents, spreadsheets and images.  Second, they permit direct recording of data in various forms — text, tables, images, etc.

3.  Adding structure to data and information

Like paper lab notebooks, but unlike other electronic media such as word documents, spreadsheets, and wikis, electronic lab notebooks enable research groups to bring structure to their data.  They do this in a variety of ways:

  • By providing the ability to use records which, unlike the blank page of the word document or wiki, themselves have structure.  This is illustrated In the example below, where the record has a series of fields; Alternative name, Source, Lab, etc.

  • With preformatted template records likely to be of use to many researchers, e.g. for experiments, antibodies, protocols,and  inventory
  • By providing the ability to create records with a structure desired by the user, and including a range of field types, such as strings, radio buttons, dates, etc.

The structure which is added to the research record is invaluable not only in terms of immediate organization, but also in terms of later search and archiving.  The field structure make it possible to conduct fine grained searches which go below the record level.  In the above example, the lab might have thousands of antibody records; taking advantage of the field structure it would be possible to search on all the’ validation status’ fields containing the term ‘No signal’.

Electronic lab notebooks also make it possible to build in a second level of structure through the ability to create links between records, for example between a record of an experiment and a record of an antibody used in the experiment.  Links are useful at this one-to-one level.  Moreover, by creating a series of links it is also possible to build databases, as reflected in the visualization below of a series of linked records.

class-diagram.png

4.  Sharing data and information

Electronic lab notebooks are designed to facilitate collaboration among a group of researchers. They do this with a permissions system that permits some records to be accessed by the entire group, some records to be accessed by subsets of the group, and some records to be kept entirely private.  In addition, they provide different kinds of access to different records or sets of records.  For example, the PI and the student conducting an experiment might have view and edit permission on the experiment record, so that the student could document the experiment and the PI could comment on it, and other members of the lab might have view only permission, so that they could observe and learn.

Electronic lab notebooks also permit permissions to be inherited by ‘child records’.  So, once the permissions are set on a particular project folder, all the experiments created within that folder have the same set of permissions, and it is not necessary to reset permissions each time a new experiment is set up.

Electronic lab notebooks also allow the creation of groups of users.  Typically there is an ‘all users’ group, and groups of smaller sets of users working together on particular projects.  Again, this makes setting permissions more streamlined.  For example, on records which everyone is to have access to, permissions are set for the all users group, and since everyone is a member of that group, it is not necessary to set permissions for each individual.

5.  Communicating

It’s pretty hard to collaborate if you can’t communicate, so good electronic lab notebooks include a messaging system.  This acts as an internal email capability, but it should also do more.  Ideally there should be the ability to make links in messages to other records in the ELN, so for example when a student sends a message to their PI to say that a particular experiment is ready for review and comment, the student can put a link in the message to the experiment record, so that all the PI has to do to access the record is to click on the link.

Online electronic lab notebooks are accessible 24/7 through any web browser, so they allow a new level of flexibility in communication between lab members.  No need to make an appointment during offfice hours to look at someone’s paper lab notebook.  You can now view it, and comment on it, at a time that is convenient to you, for example at home in the evening.  And when you are on the road you can stay in touch with the work that’s going on back in the lab because you can login over the internet, in the evening, between meetings, or whenever it suits you, and see what people have been doing.

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.

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.

5 Things PIs want in an electronic lab notebook — other suggestions?

Posted by Rory on July 28th, 2010 @ 7:00 am

What PIs want in an electronic lab notebook is often different from what postdocs and graduate students want because PIs are looking for a tool for recording the entire lab’s work, rather than an individual note taking tool.  I looked around the web at recent discussions of what PIs are looking for in an ELN, and identified five common themes:

  1. Something that’s easy to learn and easy to use in order to ensure (relatively stress free) lab-wide buy in and take up.  Joshua Shaevitz, at Princeton, has a good description of the considerations that went into adopting an ELN, and the adoption process, in his recent  post on My Lab’s Wiki-based Electronic Lab Notebook System.  He says, “Before implementing our wiki system, I setup a mock wiki ELN on my laptop and presented it during a  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.”
  2. Something that’s flexible in terms of providing for, on the one hand, common structures for group records and records that need to be accessed by multiple members of the group, and, on the other hand, scope for individuals to ‘do their own thing’ in terms of both research style and having their own private space.  Joshua Shaevitz again: “I didn’t want to impose too much structure on each lab member, as I think notebook style is very personal thing. But, I also wanted to ensure that the results would be compatible with features such as search and would work well with our archiving strategies.”
  3. Something that facilitates integrated handling of  experimental data (i.e. the lab notebook function) in the same environment as other information the lab deals with, e.g. protocols, meeting notes, etc. Alex Swarbrick at the Garvan Institute: we use our electronic lab notebook “to compile the diverse collections of data that we generate as biologists, such as images and spreadsheets, and to take minutes of meetings.”
  4. Related to the previous point, something that provides the capacity to manage physical inventory as well as data in electronic form, and the ability to link the two together.  This point is brought out by Cameron Neylon in a thread accessible in a great recent discussion started by Jonathan Eisen at U.C. Davis, Possible electronic lab notebook systems – update.  In discussing what kinds of data a system needs to able to handle, Cameron says, “generating, storing, analysing and publishing research objects, explicitly including samples and other physical objects.”  And Alex Swarbrick again: “the ability to link records, reagents and experiments. 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.”
  5. Something that can “help to deal with information and data overload (sorting and filtering)” — a scientist interviewed in a recent study of the research practices of seven life sciences research labs Patterns of information use and exchange:  case studies of researchers in the life sciences.

How does this list sound?  Is it an accurate reflection of what others want in an ELN? Is it comprehensive?  Are key requirements missing?  Comments welcome!

What is an electronic lab notebook III: the benefits of structure

Posted by Rory on July 21st, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

The last post and the one before that looked at different views on who electronic lab notebooks are for — individuals or the lab — and how wikis measure up as environments that  enable lab members to enter and share experimental data.  Notwithstanding their attraction as convenient online tools for sharing general information, wikis lack structure, and it is primarily this which has kept even labs that use wikis wedded to the paper lab notebook for documenting experiments.

In this post we’ll look at why the ability to add structure to research data  is the key enabler permitting the transition from paper lab notebooks to electronic lab notebooks.

Paper lab notebooks support as much structure as you like.  You can create sections, paste copies of images, make notes in the margin, draw diagrams — the only limit to adding structure to a paper lab notebook is the scientist’s imagination.    Unlike a wiki, an electronic lab notebook allows you to replicate the structure that you put into a paper lab notebook.  Why?  Because an electronic lab notebook allows the creation of records with different kinds of fields.  This supports structuring your research data in two ways. First, the different types of fields support entry of information in differing ways, e.g. by date or time, by entry of text, by number, with radio buttons signalling  series of mutually exclusive options, etc.  Second, different classes of records can be put together with different combinations of various kinds of fields, so creating types of records that are appropriate to different aspects of research, e.g. a CHiP experiment, a freezer, a particular protocol,or an antibody.   This is in stark contrast to the wiki, which has only one type of record — the wiki page — and an undifferentiated one at that with no support for separation into different fields.

The benefits of this structure extend further to the other  things you use in your research like images and spreadsheets.  Like wikis, electronic lab notebooks have the advantage over paper lab notebooks of being able to make links to images and spreadsheets, which can also be inserted into the electronic repository — wiki or electronic lab notebook.  But electronic lab notebooks offer superior structuring capabilities in this respect too, because with an electronic lab notebook, unlike a wiki, you can associate a spreadsheet, image or other electronic item with a particular field of a particular kind within a record.

Making use of an electronic lab notebook’s ability to create records with different kinds of fields allows you to put structure into the record of your research in an online electronic environment much as you did with a paper lab notebook and at the same time gain the benefits of associations between bits of information which can only be made in an online environment, so they actually enable taking structuring of research data to a new and higher level.  It is this element – the ability to add structure to research data – which explains why that electronic lab notebooks — and not wikis — provide the best platform for labs  wishing to move from paper to electronic recording and management of their research data.  This is the unstated driver that lies behind wikipedia’s definition of electronic lab notebook as “a software program designed to replace paper lab notebooks“.    And so, I would revise that definition and say that an electronic lab notebook is an online environment that provides a sufficient capability for structuring research data to enable scientists to document and share their research data in that environment without the need to also resort to a paper lab  notebook.