Elelctronic Lab Notebook - to use or not use - (Aug/29/2012 )
I've been contemplating on whether to use an electronic lab notebook or not and I wanted hear what other people thought about it.
I am for the electronic labbook but there are some problems with it:
-you can change its contents backwards; on the classical one, what you put there cannot be modified, and this is how you prove that you took the data when you took it and you did not falsify it later on; the labbook is a document in such cases as needing proof of discovery for patents.
-you cannot sign and let others sign as witnesses in an electronic labbook
-you cannot prove that you did the loggings
-you can delete stuff (like data that does not agree with your hypothesis)
-sometimes it is not up to you; the regulations of the institute or university you are working in might tell you exactly the expected way of keeping records of your research; at least mine is quite specific about written records that must be kept for 10 years after the end of the project or 30 years in case of scientific misconduct investigation, no matter what the conclusion of the investigation is (usually people do not read this regulations but they are there for each institute)
Do not get me wrong: I am all for the electronic labbook. But you must ensure that this labbook keeps records about the changes and does not allow things to be deleted or later modified. Also, that only one person can add stuff to his/her electronic labbook; that there is a way for a witness to 'sign' that he/she has seen and understood the entry with the date of disclosure. And, all this will be possible in a world in which the patent giving institutions and the research institutions accept this way of record keeping.
Moreover, I dream of the day in which we all keep virtual labbooks that we share with the world and we can comment on entries and approaches and results, like a big forum/blog of open science. In the end of the day, the research we are doing is on public money so the results should not be hoarded for years until we write and publish articles, but put out there for other to build on them asap. Only like this the research can advance fast enough, in an utopic world of massive collaboration instead of massive competition in which we are currently living. But this is another story....
Bottom line: I am for the electronic labbook but we must ensure that this replacement fulfills certain criteria.
Electronic lab notebook is a kind of an special application right? So it may have some measures like history of changes, that doesn't allow contents to be modified without leaving a trace. Also password protection, personal passwords and so on. As I imagine it. Otherwise "electronic" is just everything in a Notepad.
Since no requirements for changes preservation are required here I just write most of the things in Notepad (or in Word if I need highlight), everything electronic of course, what would be the point in designing primers on computer and then writing their sequences to a book, you can't copy that, you can't search.
Inability to seach in a lab book is the great trouble with paper. However I still (kind of) write the daily stories in hand. But any complete protocol is also writen electronicaly, so it's always printable again, searchable etc. I keep most things electronic only, just the important interesting stuff (i.e. I don't print all sequencing results for storage, just those where we find something, I usually don't even print papers, just read them on screen, I mostly generaly don't print unnecessary) and some summaries, that I need to carry over somewhere and show to other people are periodically printed out as well.
In some cases I have a mixed paper-electronic couples, I often need to keep trace of the genes I'm sequencing, and of the published mutations. Of course best way to do this is to have the sequence electronic, fulltext searchable. But marking new mutations there is possible, but complicated.
So I have an identical printed version, where I draw new variants, primers notes, etc. and when I need to search or copy a part of a sequence I open up the electronic version for that and navigate through both.