Paperless Digital Notebooks: Five Reasons Paper Just Isn’t Cutting It in the Lab

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Paper lab notebooks are no longer a practical option for reseach labs. Image credit: Flickr user karpatchi

Paper notebooks have long been a mainstay of the research lab. And while it’s true that they are cheap, handy and convenient, they aren’t very efficient or durable. It takes a lot of time to write and transcribe data by hand, and relying on paper lab notebooks often results in lost information and stymied collaborative efforts. Using a paper notebook might have made sense in the past, but it is time for the scientific community to make the transition to the digital age by adopting electronic lab notebook technology.  

Some labs have resisted making such a fundamental change to the way official scientific data is recorded, but as electronic lab notebook technology has progressed, it is becoming increasingly clear that traditional paper notebooks simply don’t compare. Here are five reasons why paper just isn’t cutting it in the lab.

  1. It Takes Too Long to Record and Transcribe Data in Paper Notebooks

As a scientist, you know that thorough and accurate documentation is essential for the success of a project. However, unless that information is carefully recorded and explained, it is easy to forget key components, such as what potential research avenues have been eliminated, what  quantities of which materials offer the best results, or even why the experiment was conducted in the first place.

Many researchers today spend an inordinate amount of time recording every step of an experiment using outdated methods. Endless time is wasted taping images into paper notebooks, copying numbers from machine readouts, and even transcribing relevant data from a lab mate’s notebook. Keeping track of data is important, but all of these manual activities contribute non-value-added time to the overall project, which can be frustrating for you and costly for the organization as a whole.

  1. It Takes Forever to Find Data from Previous Experiments

After a lab has been around for a few years, the notebooks inevitably start to pile up. Every lab has a shelf of filled notebooks, usually with names and/or dates recorded on their spines to give an indication of what they might contain. It is important to keep these notebooks around because they include crucial data—but actually trying to find relevant information in an old notebook can strike fear in the heart of any scientist.

If you are lucky, you might be looking for data from an experiment you conducted yourself, so you might have some memory of where to start looking. However, there is also the dreaded situation in which you need to draw data from the work of a previous lab member who is long gone—which can lead to hours of wasted time spent paging through multiple notebooks, trying to find the relevant information.

  1. It is Easy to Lose Data in Paper Notebooks, Forcing Costly Repeat Experiments

Sometimes, even when you dedicate yourself to searching through reams of lab notebooks, you  come up short. Maybe, after too many hours have been spent searching, you just call it off and redo the experiment. Even more frustrating, you may find the relevant experiment, only to realize that your predecessor’s handwriting is entirely inscrutable. In a field in which accuracy is imperative, mistaking a 2 for a 7 can have dire consequences down the line. If you aren’t sure you are reading a written out experiment correctly, a repeat is the safest option. Unfortunately, it only means more wasted time and resources.

  1. Paper Notebooks Make it Too Hard to Share Data with Collaborators

Gone are the days when science was a solitary endeavor, where a single researcher spent hours in his personal lab, designing and conducting his own experiments with no help other than a research technician or a grad student. Today’s science is highly collaborative, often requiring input from researchers who have different areas of expertise and may be based in labs on opposite sides of the country or even the world.

In this environment, easy information transfer is essential. But when data and results are documented in paper lab notebooks, sharing findings can be a major hassle and another source of wasted time. Either you must find a way to get a hard copy to your collaborators, or else spend time transcribing them digitally.

  1. Using Paper Notebooks Forces to Labs to Store Digital Information in Unsecured Locations

With dawn of big data, it is simply impossible to store the results of certain types of experiments in paper notebooks. As a result, scientists often end up documenting certain steps of a project in a lab notebook, and then referencing computer files that include the complete dataset. Not only can this turn into a scavenger hunt for future researchers who are trying to track down data or write up a paper, but it also puts the security of the data at risk.

Cyber threats are on the rise, which makes the protection of intellectual property an even more important issue in the scientific community. Relying on a combination of paper notebooks and Excel spreadsheets is risky, since a cyber hacker could delete or even steal unsecured files from lab computers.

Making the Switch to Electronic Lab Notebooks

Electronic lab notebooks, specially designed for the kind of experiment datasets researchers aggregate, resolve all five of the issues described above. When information is stored digitally, it is much easier for scientists to search for—and actually find—the data they are looking for. This improves lab productivity and cuts down on unnecessary duplicate experiments.

Electronic lab notebooks also make it easy to transfer data to collaborators from around the world. Plus, users do not have to worry that sensitive data will fall into the wrong hands. Based on these benefits, it only makes sense for modern labs to make the switch to electronic lab notebooks.

BIOVIA Electronic Lab Notebooks can help your lab cut down on errors and maximize productivity. Contact us today to learn more about how this technology can revolutionize the way research is conducted in your lab!