Electronic -vs- Paper Based Laboratory Notebooks – Reloaded

The following diagram shows my classification of some of the existing technologies for laboratory notebooks. The technologies are classified according to the degree to which the interaction is through paper or digital media (X axis, from Paper Input to Digital Input), and according to the degree of specificness of the technology for laboratory research (Y axis, from Potential to Specific).

The elements in the diagram are color coded according to the following criteria:

1- Green: These elements are the traditional non-specific technologies like the paper notebook, the scrap paper, and the standard office software. All these technologies are of general purpose, and despite the notebook sometimes has numbered pages, there is nothing that locate them within the biology research field.

2- Red: These elements are 100% digital, highly specific supplements for the traditional technologies. These technologies replace the paper books and scratch paper by providing a touch screen. They also try to provide all the digital services normally used from the office software. The technologies are highly specific because the software they use are carefully designed to leverage the typical situations of biology laboratory research.

3- Light Blue: These elements are hybrid solutions that build on top of the traditional paper and digital technologies, and enrich them in the digital world. They normally provide a digital version of a physically created laboratory book and allow the scientist to add new material, to link internet content, to relate different pages of the book, etc.

4- Blue: These last elements are not properly technologies trying to replace or enhance the laboratory book, but are enabling technologies for building paper interfaces. They are shown here in order to appreciate both their potential and their degree of digital/physical interaction.

The previous classification is a little window into the field of laboratory notebooks. The research community has done considerable work in this field, as we can see, however we still don’t see massive adaptation of these technologies. A generational change of the scientists might be the answer to massive adaptation, but that option would leave the researchers with no blame for their failure. I consider that more work has to be done in order to make the scientific community embark in the adaptation of a richer laboratory book.



2 thoughts on “Electronic -vs- Paper Based Laboratory Notebooks – Reloaded

  1. Hello again, and sorry for the randomness of this commentI mostly ok with your classification even though I would put PRISM a bit lower and Butterfly a bit higher in their specificity.My actual take on notebook, which is subject to change, is that paper and electronic notebooks are used differently. At least they afford a different use. Further work should thus try to make these two types of notebooks more complementary. By designing notebook in this way we would also solve researchers problems who constantly wonder what to keep where. (even though when you look at paper and e-notebooks you see that researchers don’t put the exact same things in them).In this context of complementarity, e-notebooks should be related to open science. The open science community is trying with blogs, wikis and eager to share its work. The are an interesting set of users to experiment notebooks with. More personally (this is a opinion I don’t have any data to prove this), I think they are exploring new ways of doing science, and this is where e-notebooks could co-evolve with them.Finally, from what I could see, you student keep using paper notebooks and some senior researchers don’t use notebooks anymore. Even though there is probably a tendency to use less paper notebook, it is really week and it is not a question of computer “fluency” rather related to:1) the percentage of work done offline vs. online.2) the number of activities to manage in parallel

  2. Aurelien, thanks again for the feedback.I am not quite sure whether ButterflyNet should be more specific than PRISM. At most they could be equally specific given that you could basically use both systems for every kind of scientific research. I think researchers face this confusion in what to keep where is mostly because of the nature of the things they want to keep. For instance if what needs to be recorded in the notebook is numeric values, they might think of writing them down on the paper notebook, but if this values are to be used as input to some software then they would prefer having them in the digital one (so they can do a simple copy&paste later). Therefore I agree, they have to be more complementary, but not as two different instances that are weakly related. They should have a strong relation as one being the extension of the other.Regarding the Open Science community I can only agree that they would be a great test bed for an e-notebook kind of solution. Both because of their willingness to share and because of their openness to technology as an enabling mechanism for their aim.Finally, I have also observed that the percentage of offline work is higher as the seniority of the researcher is lower. Meaning that junior researchers tend to do more lab work, and senior researcher are more focused on high level design and analysis. Thus, at least in the academic environment where the fieldwork has taken place, the senior researchers then to deal with a higher amount of digital information, this leading to digital notebooks. However the commercial labs have stronger policies in terms of keeping the laboratory books for everybody, resulting in both senior and junior researchers producing as much material in relation with their work.

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