Is Pen, Paper and a Good Memory Better than Electronic Lab Notebook Software?

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Has electronic lab notebook software replaced a good memory?
A lab notebook and a good memory use to be sufficient to record all the related facts of your research. Today, it is not sufficient.
Image Source: Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers via Wikimedia.org

I’ve always felt that I have a good memory. In first grade, I managed to beat every one of my classmates at the game “Memory,” which consists of matching tiles as they are briefly revealed when flipped over two at a time. In junior high, I was the only one in my class to recite Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet from memory. In high school, I memorized the phone number for each of my friends so that I could call them from anywhere.

My ability to memorize and recall large amounts of information continued as I embarked on a career in the laboratory. I felt that between my lab notebook and my mind, I would be able to remember everything necessary. I even developed a code to identify each of my experiments so that I could quickly glance through my laboratory notebook and find the references I needed.

Unfortunately, a few years ago I realized that there was a noticeable change in my laboratory environment. Thanks to new equipment and better computers, laboratory throughput was increasing. As a result, more experiments were being performed and more data was being collected. Where I once cut and pasted results into a notebook, I later began to save information to a hard drive because the data sets were too large to handle. Although I still hold the belief that my memory is good, it simply is no longer capable of keeping track of everything.

As a result, I feel that I am spending an exorbitant amount of time looking for things. These may be notes that I had on some experiment, pictures that I took during an experiment or the results of an analysis that I would like to review. Some of this information is stored in my notebook while the rest may be on a shared drive or even my own individual hard drive. It is never stored all in the same place.

I know that I am not alone in feeling that the current laboratory notebook system is untenable. In talking to others, I have learned that many have actually repeated experiments because it is less time-consuming than looking back through notes to find the needed results.

It is actions like these that cause me wonder whether the current paper-based laboratory notebook and computer hard drives shouldn’t be replaced by the electronic lab notebook software. The benefits offered by electronic lab notebook software include the following:

  • Centralized Database – With an electronic notebook, both the notes and the data are stored together in a single database. In addition, the two can be hyperlinked so that the notes point back to the data and vice versa. This ensures that data is connected and easily managed.
  • Indexed and Searchable – Once all of the data is centralized, electronic lab notebook software can also be configured to index the notes and the data, making it searchable. Do you need to recall the reagents used in a particular experiment? Simply search for a keyword and it can quickly be located.
  • Prevent Unnecessary Costs – As I have noted in a previous post, a scientist’s most valuable commodity in the laboratory is time. Time should not be spent on repeating experiments because the costs of doing so are too high. Electronic lab notebook software prevents this by enabling scientists to find information quickly and ensuring that they focus on analysis, not looking for an old experiment.

Personally, I do not think that my memory is fading, although I do consistently lose to my children when we play the game “Memory.” However, I believe that the real reason paper notebooks are not as effective today is because science is expanding at an unprecedented rate. We cannot keep up alone, but must recognize how electronic lab notebook software can help us to keep track of everything more efficiently. For more information regarding the BIOVIA Notebook, please visit our website today.

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