Charles Dickens begins his famous novel A Tale of Two Cities with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times […] we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” Dickens was writing in the 1850s, but his message rings true today. In science, with our ever-larger datasets, international collaborations, complicated modeling programs and technological innovations, what seem to make these the “best of times” can also make these the “worst of times” as well — or at least much more complicated times.
What is the difference between the worst and best of times? Very often, any ‘tales told of two labs’ will revolve around the quality of the laboratory manager. This individual’s responsibilities are extensive: he or she is responsible for maintaining laboratory information, testing and implementing new programs or initiatives, and maintaining the general health and safety of the lab.
Now on to my tale: I’ve spent extensive time in two laboratories, with two very different laboratory managers. In one, though often stressed, the laboratory manager was responsible and responsive, making sure that reagents were in the right place and ensured that something as trivial as snail mail was delivered to the right person. In the other lab, the laboratory manager could barely maintain the lab and people would often run out of reagents five minutes before it was needed for an experiment. You can imagine the morale in this latter environment: as fewer things worked out as they should, people seemed to tire more easily and devote less of their time to actually conducting experiments.
To usher in the “best of times” implement ELNs
In general, there are many things a laboratory manager must keep track of and the best can keep track of things well. Still, a system that makes this job easier, with greater transparency and efficiency will not only make a laboratory manager ‘s life easier, but such a system will also improve the general workflow of the lab. Indeed, there are important ways an ELN can assist even the worst laboratory managers, who may be simply overwhelmed, to maximize the potential of the lab by improving the morale of workers:
- Collaboration/Transparency: ELNs not only provide a replacement for paper notebooks, but, in providing this replacement in an electronic form, also enable scientists and technicians from across a company to have access to the same data. This enables greater cross-disciplinary talk between departments and fosters an environment of collegiality and open communication as information is properly organized, archived and easily shared within an organization. As one researcher wrote in a blog post, “Before a digital laboratory notebook, details were not given, descriptions were shortened, and […] valuable information was lost.” ELNs prevent such occurrences within an organization.
- Inspiration/Creativity: Given that people will likely feel more invested in a company that is transparent and collaborative, many more workers will be inspired to improve the company. By providing a means of both tracking data entered and analyzing this data, or being able to find common threads among experiments through keyword tagging, workers will hold themselves to a higher standard and will be able to make better use of others’ research and the organization’s resources. Collaborations between departments will also give people new ideas about novel programming or materials, thus moving the organization forward.
- Motivation: As more of a company’s workers have access to organized and searchable data, they will likely become more motivated to pull relevant information from ELN databases that are easy to use. Different members of a research team may also decide to assist other members or ensure that work is reproducible. As John P.A. Ioannidis, a professor at Stanford University told the Telegraph in an article about data fabrication, “While currently there is unilateral emphasis on ‘first’ discoveries, there should be as much emphasis on replication of discoveries.” In the context of an organization, ELNs provide data in a clear context and encourage researchers to provide all necessary information that will enable a study to be reproduced or if not, abandoned.
Altogether, ELNs can dramatically improve the workflow of an organization and the job of a laboratory manager by making each individual more responsible for his or her own work. But this is not a burden to those individuals. Instead, ELNs provide a means for data to be easily uploaded in many forms (i.e. video, image files, etc.) and stored digitally. This information can then be shared with collaborators and others to allow for the quick resolution of any problems, for example, thus strengthening the organization as a whole.
In again considering a “tale of two labs,” the point is not to necessarily criticize one person or another. The larger goal is to demonstrate that laboratory managers must coordinate many tasks and individuals within an organization. ELNs enable a more efficient coordination of these things, while also improving the general work environment and collegiality by improving collaboration between colleagues, encouraging transparency, serving as a reservoir for inspiration/creativity and finally, improving the motivation of workers.