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!

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!