Electronic Lab Notebooks

In graduate school, I kept an electronic lab notebook—but the wrong kind of electronic lab notebook. (Then again, in graduate school, I did the wrong kind of everything. That may be why it took seven years.)

The requirements for a physically handwritten lab notebook were never made clear to me, so I did what seemed easiest: I maintained a single, unwieldy Word document that made my poor laptop wheeze for five minutes like an overburdened steam engine every time I opened it.

It turns out I should have been writing my results by hand, and not just because of the injustice of inflicting a JPG-filled, multi-hundred-page file on a computer that would shut down whenever the hamster in the little wheel got tired. Handwritten notebooks are the standard in science; even as we perform cutting-edge research, we still, by default, catalog that research with a ballpoint pen.

I had kept my notebook electronically to make it searchable—when I wanted to know the recipe for a particular reagent, or the purification protocol for a certain protein, the answer was a mere Ctrl+F away. But one keeps a handwritten notebook, not to show consistency with our cave-scientist forbears, but because handwritten results can’t be clandestinely altered later.

That’s no small detail. For the public to trust the discoveries coming out of our labs, not to mention for the sake of patent applications, we need to record important data in a way that can’t be faked. (Luckily, my graduate school research was unimportant.) Some lab notebooks have carbon paper attached to the back; others require the user to write a large slash through any unused white space, then start a new page every day.

The other problem with my make-your-own-electronic-notebook was security. A physical notebook can stay locked in a fireproof cabinet—I once worked at a pharma company that reserved the right to inspect employees’ vehicles to make sure their lab notebooks didn’t travel offsite. Presumably they were concerned about us bringing our notebooks home and having the WILDEST WEEKEND EVER.

But my Word file had no security. It could have ended up on a shared library computer by mistake, or on a lost flash drive, or attached to an email sent to the wrong person. Then anyone could have found it and tried to replicate my results—though, in my particular case, if they had succeeded, I would have thanked them.

Let’s be honest: Handwritten notebooks are annoying. It just feels wrong, in the digital age, to handwrite…well, anything. I get irritated when I have to write the date on a check. When I sit down with a bound notebook of graph paper and transcribe lab results longhand, I feel like I ought to turn on a kerosene lamp and dip my quill into an inkwell.

For goodness sake, I use instruments that output digital files. I make graphs in Excel or GraphPad. Then I have to print those figures or data, cut them out with scissors, and tape them into my lab notebook, signing across the edge of each. Is this kindergarten? Sometimes entire pages of my notebook are just printouts, taped in. That’s like being told you need to walk to work instead of riding your bicycle, but the bicycle is vital, so you have to carry it while walking.

And what if I worked with very large data sets? Would I print everything in 3-point type, then have an all-night cut-and-paste party?

A handwritten lab notebook always felt to me like I was keeping it, not for my own benefit, but for the benefit of someone else—who would probably never look at it. That alone was a barrier to maintaining one assiduously, since I’d usually rather spend my time performing another experiment than assembling a diary-plus-scrapbook to go on a shelf.

Luckily, scientific record-keeping has caught up with science. It’s now possible to have a true electronic lab notebook that’s simple, functional, secure, shareable, and perhaps most importantly, traceably alterable.

These are real electronic lab notebooks—also called ELN’s, since scientists abbreviate everything—not the makeshift solution I attempted in grad school. They track every edit, so it’s okay to make changes or add notes. They can support data files and figures, and in many cases they even connect directly to lab instruments for instant transfer and logging of data. They can be shared with colleagues and collaborators, all while keeping their contents secure in some way I don’t understand. Some are even open-source, allowing users to create and distribute modules that make sense with their research.

sciNote, for example, does exactly this. It’s secure, traceable, and offers 1 GB of free data storage. It lets users set up an experiment template, which you can then clone and reuse for future experiments. You can even post comments, so you can totally troll that evil postdoc who keeps taking your Sharpie.

In other words, by integrating seamlessly and securely into one’s research, ELN’s like sciNote now make science easier, not harder. That’s good news for everyone—especially the hamster in the little wheel.