Usable Research Data: Electronic Lab Notebook Software Helps Information Become What It Needs To Be

Digital Solutions

What is the purpose of a laboratory notebook? I recently asked this question to a group of three laboratory scientists and I received three completely different answers. The first suggested that a laboratory notebook was to be a data resource used primarily to support decision making. The second suggested that the main purpose of a notebook was to secure and protect intellectual property (IP). The last scientist suggested that the notebooks were principally used for organizational learning.

lab notebook
Does the format of a laboratory notebook help it to achieve its purpose?
Image source: Flickr user Marcin Wichary

From this discussion, it was obvious to me that there seems to be no single purpose for a laboratory notebook. However, it also became obvious that achieving any of these objectives could not be efficiently accomplished without first adopting electronic lab notebook software.

To understand the limitations inherent within a paper-based laboratory notebook, let’s review each purpose separately:

Decision Support

Experts agree that good decisions are based on good data. Before making a decision, researchers needs to gather, classify and organize all the relevant information to understand all of the possible outcomes that can occur. In the laboratory, this means gathering as much information as possible about samples tested, results reviewed and conclusions drawn. Collecting and synthesizing as much information as possible will enable researchers to justify their decisions to coworkers, laboratory directors and regulators.

If decision support is one of the key purposes of a laboratory notebook, then it may not make sense to use the traditional paper notebook. Such notebooks are repositories designed simply for information retention, but is not conducive for information retrieval. Once the data is recorded on a page, it can only be retrieved through rediscovery. The result is that important information that may justify, support or influence a decision essentially becomes inaccessible and unusable.

In comparison, electronic lab notebook software is designed for easy information retrieval. Most software products include some kind of indexing tool that allows text, data and even pictures to be tagged and stored for future retrieval. Recovering any information is as simple as entering keywords into a search bar.

If the main purpose of using a laboratory notebook is for decision support, switching to electronic lab notebook software will enable decision makers to save both time and energy by providing better access to stored information.

Protect Intellectual Property

Scientists also agree that the notebook is the primary system of record within the laboratory. As such, it contains details regarding hypothesis, experiments, results, interpretations and conclusions. In other words, it reflects all of the data necessary to file a patent, create a trade secret or a new product or publish a scientific paper.

Since this information is so valuable, it would be wise to store it in the most controlled and protected format possible. Security controls may include protection from both internal and external dangers. However, for laboratories currently storing this information in a paper notebook, it could easily be lost, stolen, or damaged by the environment.

Alternatively, electronic lab notebook software can be used to protect IP from both internal and external threats. For example, access controls can be added to the data that allow only approved individuals to access sensitive research data. This type of control insures that only internally approved individuals view sensitive laboratory information. In addition, a backup and restore program can be implemented over the server, ensuring that the saved data can be restored in case of external threats such as fire or water damage.

If the intellectual property stored within a laboratory notebook is valuable, it needs to be protected. An ELN provides the security needed to ensure that IP is safe from both internal and external threats.

Organizational Learning

Thirty years ago, it was not uncommon for a scientist to remain with the same laboratory for their entire career. This longevity was important because it allowed organizational knowledge to pass from one generation to the next.

However, there are two problems that arise regarding laboratory organizational learning today. First, laboratories are becoming larger, resulting in less familiarity with coworkers across the organization. Second, the average amount of time spent at a single laboratory is decreasing due to globalization and different work styles within younger generations. The result is that organizational learning is more difficult to preserve and information is not as readily available among researchers.

The situation becomes even more complicated in firms using paper-based notebooks because key information regarding procedures, protocols, experiments performed and results obtained can easily be lost or inaccessible by coworkers.

However, electronic lab notebook software can mitigate these risks by actually increasing organizational learning in a couple of ways. First, software ensures that process, procedures and laboratory data are stored within a database that is easily accessible by all. In addition, when new procedures are created, this information can be disseminated  throughout a firm via the software, ensuring consistency regardless of organization size or work styles.

By simplifying access to information, electronic lab notebook software allows the “know-how” of the organization to be available to everyone.

The Bottom Line

Although scientists have many reasons regarding “why” they use a laboratory notebook, it appears that the format of that notebook significantly affects the ability of the organization to accomplish their stated goals. Electronic lab notebook software can ensure that the true potential of a laboratory notebook is achieved.

If you would like to learn more about how the Accelrys Notebook can help your company improve decision making, protect intellectual property or improve organizational learning, please visit our website today.

5 thoughts on “Usable Research Data: Electronic Lab Notebook Software Helps Information Become What It Needs To Be

  1. I agree that the lab notebook is essential for organization, however the lab notebook can often become sloppy and illegible. An electronic notebook is an excellent solution to this problem.

  2. I agree that a paper notebook doesn’t facilitate organizational learning nearly as well as an electronic notebook. In particular, younger employees would be much more likely to check the electronic notebook.

  3. Brian, you bring up an interesting idea regarding the adoption of an ELN and demography. Maybe it is something worth exploring in future posts.

  4. I think it comes down to the ability to search and find content again. This is something not easily done in a lab notebook.

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