Lab Book: The Next Generation

(September 1st, 2016) Paper is so yesterday, electronic lab books are the latest craze. Biomedical researchers in Spain compared six of the most widely-used models on the market.

Will tablets ever replace the traditional lab notebook? On the one hand, there are rational reasons why they should do so. It is easier to police them by placing them on a server and sealing them with electronic signatures. It is easier to run full-text searches on them. They can force the scientist to work according to standard operation procedures and a regimented lab work-flow.

On the other hand, there is a natural resistance to abandoning the age-old simple technology known as the paper lab book. All you need is the book, a pen and some glue for sticking bits of paper in. No batteries, no software updates, no day-long training sessions.

Perhaps if we could find the magic formula for the perfect electronic lab book, we could persuade the paper lovers to change their minds. I recently came across a little paper in PLoS ONE that discussed the use of electronic lab books, and it came down rather heavily in favour of ... well, have a guess.

Was it Labware's "LabWare ELN", that integrates seamlessly with a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) with integrated Quality Control, Standard Operating Procedures, Analyst Certification and so on? Nope, try again. Perkin Elmer's "E-notebook", with its integration with work-flow tools, configurable interface and compliance with 21CFR11?

No, neither of these. The best lab notebook according to Guerrero et al. was none other than Microsoft's OneNote.

Having reviewed Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs) before in Lab Times, I was naturally intrigued. How can OneNote possibly compete with Perkin Elmer's E-Notebook or Elements? After all, these are serious all-round professional solutions offered by people who know all about doing serious, money-making high stakes biological research. But that may actually be the point. The anarchic, free-form nature of OneNote is actually a plus when it is put before actual scientists working at the bench.

Guerrero and colleagues took a two-tiered approach to ask the question of how useful tablet-based electronic lab notebooks could be when coupled with such features as touch-screen technology and wearable devices. First of all, they ran five major ELNs in a feature-matching head-to-head. Contestants in the race were Evernote (Free and Premium versions), OneNote of course, E-Notebook and Elements (both from Perkin-Elmer), and BIOVIA Notebook from Dassault Systèmes.

OneNote took a clear lead mostly because of its flexibility - you can paste in images and tables, draw freehand using a mouse or electronic pen, search and collaborate easily by sharing documents. OneNote didn't quite have it all its way, though. Where it really struggled against the competition was in legality. No, I don't mean illegal downloads of OneNote. I mean compliance with legal standards governing lab notebooks. While paper notebooks are easily manipulated to change entries, dates etc, one of the attractions of ELNs is the potential to make it very hard indeed to cheat without leaving your electronic fingerprints all over the scene.

Hosting legal documents digitally off-site (to make any attempted changes more transparent) and signed digitally is now accepted practice even in the strongly regulated pharmaceutical industry. This practice is regulated by different US and European legal framework, and Evernote, OneNote and Elements simple don't come up to these standards. But does the average person at the bench really care about that?

In the second part of Guerrero's paper the authors gave either OneNote or Elements to 28 scientists to use on tablets in place of their traditional paper notebooks. Overall, the researchers liked using tablets instead of paper. Given the entrenched place of honour given to spiral-bound notebooks stuffed to breaking point with pasted gels and protocols, this comes as quite a surprise. Less surprising, given the technical advantages outline in the first part of the study, was the scientists' stated preference for OneNote over Elements.

Will the ease of use of OneNote speed the adoption of ELNS and the abandonment of good ol' paper? Clearly, the familiarity and the flexibility of OneNote appealed to the scientists in Guerrero's study, and the lack of regulatory tightness did not seem to worry them too much.

But can we trust Guerrero's paper? The paper does not say what kind of labs the volunteers were working in. And we note that of the 28 scientists, 17 tested only OneNote, and only 5 used only Elements, with the remaining 6 using both programs. The most likely explanation is that the scientists chose their own program - in other words, this is not a randomised study.

Nonetheless, the study raises an interesting question: can something as simple as OneNote (or, preferably something not tied to one particular operating system) be a simple drop-in replacement for paper notebooks? Rightly or wrongly, most academic labs don't agonise too much over regulation anyway - the strong tradition of personally integrity is supposed to obviate that. For most of us, the sheer simplicity and convenience of paper is a hands-down winner that is going to be hard to beat. But if forced to an electronic alternative, whatever looks like a pencil teamed with a pad of paper is going to win our compliance, even if it never wins our affection.

Steven Buckingham

Photo: Flickr/Petr Dadák (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last Changes: 09.26.2016