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.

What is an electronic lab notebook II — how do wikis measure up?

Posted by Rory on July 14th, 2010 @ 7:00 am

In the last post I poked a bit of fun at the wikipedia definition of  electronic lab notebook — “a software program designed to replace paper lab notebooks”.  Since that could mean just about anything, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  The big dividing line is between people — like postdocs and graduate students — looking for a note taking tool for themselves, and others — like PIs — looking for a collaborative research tool for the lab.

This time I’m going to take a look at wikis — how do they measure up to the challenge faced by PIs looking for a collaborative research tool:  organizing and keeping track of a wide range of types of research data generated by lab members, present, past and future?   The first point to make is that there are all sorts of wikis, with varying degrees of sophistication, power and capabilities.    I’m going to use the most developed wikis as a point of comparison here — Confluence and PBWorks are good examples — wikis with a fully developed feature set.

As a recent study looking in depth at the work practices of seven life sciences research labs pointed out, a growing number of labs have turned to wikis as convenient environments for storing and sharing general information like meeting notes and protocols.  Wikis have a number of attractions to labs, in that they are easy to learn and use, online, and provide good support for sharing and collaboration.  In addition, the more sophisticated wikis have integrated messaging systems and some, like PBWorks, even have voice conferencing capabilities.

At the top end, then, wikis are becoming fully fledged knowledge management tools.  But features like voice conferencing are aimed at businesses, not labs.  For labs the key issue is managing their data. The study notes that notwithstanding the trend towards organizing general information in wikis, all the labs studied still maintain paper lab notebooks.  Paper lab notebooks stand out as an island of tradition in the midst of a growing ocean of online information sharing.    An island perhaps but a pretty big island, Australia rather than Fiji if you will, because paper lab notebooks are the repositories for the most important information labs deal with, their research data.

On this evidence wikis are falling short as a software program that replaces paper lab notebooks, and hence are not functioning as electronic lab notebooks per the wikipedia definition.  Why are labs staying with paper lab notebooks even as they adopt wikis to share information other than research data?  Inertia no doubt is a big part of the reason.  But the other big barrier to adoption of tools in labs — they have to be easy to learn and easy to use — is probably less of a factor.  Wikis  are coming into general use and it’s not the wiki per se that is being resisted, its the use of the wiki specifically as a place for entering and sharing research data.

Here’s a hypothesis:  the reason labs are sticking with paper lab notebooks for dealing with experimental data and not moving their experimental data into wikis along with general information like meeting notes and protocols is that wikis are unable to provide structure for the data.  With a wiki all you get is the wiki page.  It has no more support for structure than a Word document, and even less structure than a spreadsheet, without  doubt the most popular electronic repository for experimental research data.  Next time I will look in more detail at how electronic lab notebooks provide support for structuring research data and the benefits this can bring to collaboration and communication in the lab.