Friday, 13 August 2010

Science - all about the new, in an old fashioned way.

Scientists work on the unknown; they are at the forefront of knowledge. They know what is new in technology, engineering and medicine before anyone else. Ironically, the way scientists record their information is firmly stuck in the dark ages, they hand write stuff, with pen and paper. The record of the experiments they carry out is contained in handwritten lab books. Hardly anyone still works with paper and ink anymore, is this an example of where something that isn’t broken shouldn’t be fixed, or can technology help make life easier?

Filling out a lab book is annoying. Just writing one basic experiment can involve 2/3 pages of handwritten notes, 3 trips to the printer and a lot of cutting and sticking. As most experiments are repetitions of previous ones the methods are the same but the methods still need to be written out by hand in the lab book. For the majority of experiments results are revealed through a computer and the graphs created from results are also created by a computer. To record the results from the computer you have to print them out, cut and stick in your lab book. It's a laborious job. I sometimes feel a bit like a primary school student with all the cutting and sticking! It doesn’t help that the scissors I use are actually from a primary school!

Accurate recording of results, methods and thoughts is priceless. Lab books are actual legal documents, they can be called upon in court to help resolve patent disputes and plagiarism disputes. They are also invaluable in that they help you remember what you did 6 months ago! Sadly many lab books are not up to scratch, a lot of them are illegible and experimental methods are badly recorded. Making the process of recording experiments easier and simpler would save time and effort and potentially would make people record their work a little better. Some people do have extremely neat, fully completed clear lab books. I would say mine lies somewhere in between super neat and a big mess, it depends how busy I am and how much effort I can be bothered putting into it. Think about being at school and writing in exercise books, some peoples are super neat, others are a scrawling mess that only they can understand - this is what lab books are like.


These days nearly everything is done electronically, so why can’t science catch up with the times and use an electronic lab book to record lab experiments and information?  Surely other people have thought of this before me, I know many people that grumble about having to update their lab book. Data could be recorded easily and simply in an e-lab book, results and images from experiments could be directly inputted from the system/software used for the experiment, saving time and effort. Methods could be copied and pasted and altered as required - typed text is always legible, it beats handwriting anyday - this could make the court cases easier! The e-lab book could be date controlled, every time a entry is inputted the lab book could automatically record the date. Any edits to the information could be recorded on the system, so the opportunity to fudge results is reduced and the e-lab books would be as fool proof as hand writing the results/ideas. Another major advantage is one to the wider world of science, E-lab books could be made available on the Internet - no waiting 6/12 months to publish a paper the newest data would be accessible to all, this could potentially speed up science and research and reduce repetition across labs. When a research paper is produced, it could link back to the e-lab books where the experiments were carried out so the original data is available. This would be another great step forward, interactive research papers would be more useful than the standard ones we have today and also far more exciting!

So why aren't we there already?
There are of course disadvantages to using e-recording.Technology can fail, I think nearly everyone that has completed a PhD in the last few years has gone through the drama of losing some results/PhD thesis through system failures. In these cases the paper copies of their results become extremely important. Until e-recording is absolutely fail safe then there is a huge risk here. Opportunities for altering results are potentially higher if everything is recorded electronically, however I think if someone is set out to fudge results they could do that through the paper recording method too. Having a date monitor on the e-lab book possibly could help prevent results being altered. Ultimately, until industry decides that what they want and need is e-lab books, it won't happen. I very much doubt that in this economic climate academia will lead the way, but you never know. 

A change in the way people work is always difficult, people mostly dislike change, even scientists that are changing the way we look at the world through their discoveries are still creatures of habit. Some experiments are still recorded by hand, I know I have to count cell numbers by eye and hand - so I would need a way of transporting my computer to the microscope room (4 floors below me) in order to input the data. It’s not so easy to type when peering down a microscope; however, it is relatively easy to use a pen. I do own an iPhone, I could quite easily record my results where-ever I am through my e-lab book on my iPhone. Not everyone has a smart phone at the moment, which brings me on to the next barrier, cost. Technology is expensive; I imagine an e-lab book system would cost a lot more than rolling out paper lab books. I can understand why academia isn't pushing for this option. Other industries with a bit more money to play with could benefit from e-lab books, the pharmaceutical industry is regularly involved in patent disputes where lab books are brought up in court, accurate and clear e-recording of information could potentially make this process simpler and the time saved would make their scientists more productive.
Regardless of what I posted above, sometimes it’s quite nice to be reminded of what writing by hand is like, the opportunity to hand write doesn’t come very often. Writing by hand makes you think before you write, you cannot delete something in ink on paper. In this age where information and thoughts are batted around 2 a penny on the Internet as soon as they appear in someone’s brain, it can be quite nice to write something that you have thought about a lot before hand on paper, especially when it is random notes containing your thoughts, ideas and theories on a subject. I don't think you would get as many ridiculous and offensive tweets if people had to go to the trouble of handwriting them. Writing on a computer/iPhone does not give you the same feeling; it's like writing a letter, old fashioned, but nice.

8 comments:

  1. I think handwritten notes in ledgers persists precisely for the reason that they are legal records, and harder to doctor than an electronic file.
    ~jon

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  2. If lab books aren't up to date then really, that is a fault with the scientist, not the technology used.

    Now, can I read my thesis from the 80s? Where would I find a computer with the necessary software and disc drive? As if by magic, I still have the handwritten copy and the printed copy. They can be taken down from the shelf, read and re-read right now, unlike the electronic copies.

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  3. Keeping records up to date is the responsibility of the scientist. It is a time consuming pain though, so anything that could make it easier would be welcomed.

    Yes hard copies do have their advantages but they are not easy to find. If I was researching the topic of your thesis and wanted to read up on the subject how would I know that your thesis existed? How would I be able to get hold of a copy? Having information searchable and readily available online would ensure that I wouldn't be missing any valuable information when researching past work on a topic of interest.

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  4. As far as I am aware (and I do know people in the industry) most big pharma companies do use electronic notebooks now even if not all universities have got around to this - I'm pretty sure some have. However there is a world of difference between something just being electronic and being freely available.

    Freedom of information is an entirely different (though worthwhile) debate. I've also blogged about this on my blog - hope you find it interesting!

    In response to Anonymous - any important results from your thesis should have been published in journals and these will still be available online and in print from your library. Anyone in the world can therefore access them. This is a great argument for the existence of publishers vs simply everyone putting stuff on their own webpage - publishers make a guarantee that what they publish will be there for posterity, even if the publisher itself goes under.

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  5. Hi Sciencecarol, thanks for your comments.

    I wasn't aware of anyone using e-lab book technology in industry or in academia. I hadn't even heard the term mentioned until I started looking into it. I thought maybe some pockets of people were trying it out somewhere, but I haven't seen any evidence of this (I have no doubt that in the future lab books will all be electronic).

    Surely on the freedom of information debate, if all information was freely available then there would be no reason for it to be a debate? I know that some disputes about 'who discovered what first/who had the idea first' are mostly solved by consulting the lab books and seeing on which dates people did what and their apparent reasons for doing so. If you put something in writing on your e-lab book which was online when you did an experiment then that debate would become somewhat null as there would be an electronic record of who did it first. This does obviously depend on everyone using an online system and is an idealistic situation. With small steps we might get to something similar eventually.

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  6. Just came across this post on the Open Laboratory 2010 Submissions site.

    I work as a chemist at a pharmaceutical company and use an electronic notebook every day! There are a number of e-notebook software choices available. The program we use is called Symex Discovery Notebook. I think a lot pharmaceutical and biotech companies have switched over to e-notebooks, although not every group in my company uses them. For many of the reasons you noted in the post, e-notebooks are very convenient (they even do simple calculations for you). And they do allow for a greater degree of transparency. I can use my e-notebook to look at any experiment conducted by anyone in the company (for obvious reasons not all research data is released to the public). I'm sure the technology will catch on in academia at some point, but cash-strapped PI's are likely to view e-notebook software as a low priority investment.

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  7. That's great! I was working in a big consumer goods/pharma company that wasn't using that technology. Great to see that it is slowly coming in! I imagine that there are security worries with using e-lab books that people are wary of. The biggest barrier would be cash though! I agree with you, at the moment I am not sure why a PI with a small lab would invest in something like this when they could spend the cash on some new equipment.

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  8. Great article- interesting to see that over a year later it's still relevant! eNotebooks will eventually takeover paper versions (be it 2, 5, or 10 years), but it won't go down without a struggle from those who enjoy the feeling of pen on paper. In the end, the ease of searching, accessing, and storing data on a computer/online will win out. So we can all start preparing our "when I was at the bench, we wrote every single experiment by hand" stories...

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