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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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!

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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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!