Every scientist looks forward to the day that their experiment works and they have exciting data; it is at this point that we have to remember what we did to get the data and why we did the experiment in the first place. As early career researchers, we are trained to keep paperbound notebooks to record our daily experiments. We are told that the purpose is to keep track of experiments, maintain reproducibility, protect intellectual property and comply with regulatory requirements.

As we mature in our scientific endeavors at the bench we start to master the scientific process. The paperbound notebook has been a lab staple for many years, but today we are living in a digital world. Everything from our bank accounts to our medical records are digitized and paperless. When we look around our lab on any given day we can spot our labmates hovering over their laptops to search for reagents or an unfamiliar term, streaming music to their phones to bring enjoyment to benchwork, sitting in lectures taking notes on their iPad, attending journal clubs with the paper downloaded on their iPad and then…sitting down to handwrite lab entries into a paperbound notebook?

From this viewpoint it seems a bit archaic to still be keeping records of our laboratory experiments in paperbound lab notebooks.

Otto Hahn’s notebook from exhibit of the experimental apparatus with which the team of Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann discovered nuclear fission in 1938.

The History of the Electronic Lab Notebook

As laboratories become more digitized, an electronic alternative to paperbound notebooks seems an appropriate step in refining documentation.

Today, in the industrial scientific environment the use of electronic lab notebooks (like Labguru, which is a Digital Science portfolio company) is widespread, in contrast to academic laboratories where the paperbound format still dominates.

Most will find it surprising that the concept of transitioning from paperbound recordkeeping to an electronic notebook was already a hot topic in the early 1990’s. In fact, in August of 1993 at the 206th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society an entire day of the conference was dedicated to talking about electronic lab notebooks.

In the mid-1980’s Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s Dr. Raymond E. Dessy began postulating the idea of an electronic notebook and was one of the first to provide a working prototype in 1994. When interviewed about the capabilities of the electronic notebook in 1994 Dessy describes being able to scan in vendor information, data sheets, experimental results and pool together data and figures to begin writing rough drafts of papers and stated that:

“These are all things you could never do with a paper notebook. The beauty is I can not only search the notebook but also use it to initiate searches of other databases.”

Dessy even predicted the future of the electronic notebook when he described the portable aspects:

“Laptop and palmtop PCs that can dock with a mother computer to discharge research results are available, and wireless communication linkages exist between truly portable computers and a host.”

Where are we today?

Fast forward 20 years and we are living out the prediction that Dessy made. Today, electronic lab notebooks come in the form of software/applications that can be downloaded onto any laptop, tablet or phone. They are truly portable and can be connected to cloud-based software that provides backup storage for the notebook information and makes it easy to share. We are now at the point where we wonder why there has not been a huge effort to get all scientists to convert to electronic lab notebooks.

There have been numerous studies that examine this exact question and one of the biggest problems for institutions is integration. When this idea is broken down into sub-topics it becomes clear that a major reason for the lack of transition comes from the scientists themselves. For scientists who have not made the transition there are several concerns that come into play, which prevent making the move toward an electronic lab notebook.

The traditional paperbound lab notebook is viewed as portable, affordable, and flexible, allowing one to easily jot down notes and create drawings as needed. The fear of using the electronic notebook is that these features will be lost. The software behind the notebook is often viewed as difficult to use, more time consuming and less flexible, which ultimately leads to frustration and reluctance to make the switch. Scientists cannot be forced to abandon paperbound notebooks – they must first be convinced that there is real value that can translate into making their scientific work more successful.

What do you think?

In our next post we will examine some facts about the electronic lab notebook that might convince you to give it try. In the meantime, we are keen to find out what you currently use in the lab – scientists and researchers please take part in our poll – the results will be shared in the coming weeks and also on the Labguru blog.