Scientific Collaboration Made Easy with Electronic Laboratory Notebooks

Digital Solutions

In 2011, Gregory I. Lang and David Botstein published a paper on the Internet journal PLOS ONE. The paper is titled “A Test of the Coordinated Expression Hypothesis for the Origin and Maintenance of the GAL Cluster in Yeast,” and contains all the typical parts of a scientific article, including an abstract, introduction, results, discussion and supporting information. Although the contents of the paper may not be exciting to everyone, what is interesting about this paper is that as part of their supplementary data, the authors included a scanned copy of all 101 pages of their laboratory notebook including notes, methods and the raw data from the experiments.

By including the laboratory notebook in the actual paper, the scientists showed their belief in the power of sharing. As we have noted in a previous post, collaboration plays an important role in the process of discovery, and the raw data may provide an immediate benefit to others studying in this field. However, wouldn’t the data have been more beneficial to collaborators if it had been captured and shared in an electronic format?

Paper laboratory notebooks are phyically limited in their ability to share
The first page of laboratory notebook included in the Lang and Botstein paper.
Courtesy of plosone.org

By using an electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) instead of a traditional laboratory notebook, Lang and Botstein would have enjoyed the following benefits:

  • Searchable – One problem with paper notebooks is the impracticality of searching the log for a key term. For example, the Lang and Botstein notebook is 101 pages long. To find a specific section or keyword, you will have to read every page. However, if the analysis and results were captured within an ELN, they would be stored in a digital format. By storing the results in a digital format, they become searchable by keyword, phrase, or even by sentence.
ELNs provide search capablity over traditional laboratory notebooks
Finding a needle in a haystack is easy with an ELN!
Courtesy of technolawyer.com
  • Shareable – Due to the physical nature of the documentation, paper lab notebooks are limited in their ability to be shared. In general, lab notebooks are shared with only one or two other scientists. Since ELNs are digital, they are not constrained in the same way as paper, and it is easy to share the notebook with others either during the research process, or after it is completed. This means that feedback on results can be obtained from a whole laboratory, or even a larger community, rather than just one person.
  • Audit Trails – ELNs can be configured to automatically note each time a revision is made. This actually provides two benefits. First, it is useful to see the evolution of an experiment as it progresses from conception to analysis. Second, it is also helpful in identifying and giving credit to people who contributed to the evolution.
  • Hyperlinking – It is difficult to link within a paper laboratory notebook. The best way is to note a referring page number in the margin. An ELN simplifies this process by providing a hyperlink option. Using this, scientists can connect different parts of the notebook together.

By posting their entire paper laboratory notebook on the Internet, Land and Botstein took an admirable step towards better scientific collaboration. Hopefully more researchers will follow suit and open up their studies to such community sharing. Maybe even one day this practice will be the norm rather than the exception. However, if the entire notebook had been documented using an ELN, the collaborators would have gained additional benefits through such features like keyword search, audit trails and hyperlinking. It’s amazing to think about the collaboration and innovation that could take place if more data from studies were not simply posted in a public forum, but how that information could more efficiently boost further exploration if shared in a digital format.

If you would like to learn more about the benefits provided in an ELN, please visit our website today.

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