In the spring of this year (March & May) the Research Data Service ran two workshops on Electronic Notebooks (ENs) where researchers from all three colleges were invited to share their experiences of using ENs with other researchers. Presentations and demos were given on RSpace, Benchling, Jupyter Notebooks, WikiBench, and Lab Archives. Almost 70 research and support staff attended and participated in the discussions.
This post is a distillation of those discussions and we will use them to inform our plans around Electronic Notebooks over the coming year. It was obvious from the level of attendance and engagement with the discussions that there was quite a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of adopting ENs across a variety of different schools and disciplines. However, it also quickly became clear that many researchers and support staff had quite justified reservations about how effectively they could replace traditional paper notebooks. In addition to the ENs which were the subject of presentations a number of other solutions were also discussed, including; LabGuru, OneNote, SharePoint, and Wikis.
It appears that across the University there are a very wide range of platforms being used, and not all of them are intended to serve the function of an EN. This is unsurprising as different disciplines have different requirements and an EN designed for the biological sciences, such as Benchling, is unlikely to meet the needs of a researcher in veterinary medicine or humanities. There is also a huge element of personal preference involved, some researchers wish a simple system that will work straight out of the box while others want something more customisable and with greater functionality for an entire lab to use in tandem.
So, within this complex and varied landscape are there any general lessons we can learn? The answer is “Yes” because regardless of platform or discipline there are a number of common functions an EN has to serve, and a number of hurdles they will have to overcome to replace traditional paper lab books.
Firstly, let’s look at common functional requirements:
- Entries in ENs must be trustworthy, anyone using one has to be confident that once an entry is made it cannot be accidentally deleted or altered. All updates or changes must be clearly recorded and timestamped to provide a complete and accurate record of the research conducted and the data collected. This is fundamental to research integrity and to their acceptance by funders, or regulators as a suitable replacement for the traditional, co-signed, lab books.
- They must make sharing within groups and between collaborators easier – it is, in theory, far easier to share the contents of an EN with interested parties whether they are in the same lab or in another country. But in doing so they must not make the contents inappropriately available to others, security is also very important.
- Integration is the next requirement, any EN should be able to integrate smoothly with the other software packages that a researcher uses on a regular basis, as well as with external (or University central) storage, data repositories, and other relevant systems. If it doesn’t do this then researchers may lose the benefits of being able to record, view, and analyse all of their data in one place, and the time savings from being able to directly deposit data into a suitable repository when a project ends or a publication is coming out.
- Portability is also required, it must be possible for a researcher to move from one EN platform to another if, for example, they change institutions. This means they need to be able to extract all of their entries and data in a format that can be understood by another system and which will still allow analysis. Most ENs support PDF exports which are fine for some purposes, but of no use if processing or analysis is desired.
- Finally, all ENs need to be stable and reliable, this is a particular issue with web based ENs which require an internet connection to access and use the EN. This is also an area where the University will have to play a significant role in providing long-term and reliable support for selected ENs. They also need the same longevity as a paper notebook, the records they contain must not disappear if an individual leaves a group, or a group moves to another EN platform.
Secondly, barriers to adoption and support required:
- Many research environments are not suitable for digital devices, phones / tablets are banned from some “wet” labs on health and safety grounds. If they are allowed in the lab they may not be allowed out again, so space for storage and charging will need to be found. What happens if they get contaminated?
- Field based research may not have reliable internet access so web based platforms wouldn’t work.
- There is unlikely to be space in most labs for a desktop computer(s).
- All of this means there will still be a need for paper based notes in labs with later transfer to the EN, which will result in duplication of effort.
- tablets and similar are not always an allowable research expense for a grant, so who will fund this?
- if the University does not have an enterprise licence for the EN a group uses they will also need to find the funds for this
- additional training and support my also be required
- technical support for University adopted systems will need to be provide
- ISG staff will need to be clear on what is available to researchers and able to provide advice on suitable platforms for different needs
- clear incentives for moving to an EN need to be communicated to staff at all levels
- funders, publishers, and regulatory bodies will also need to be clear that ENs are acceptable for their purposes
So, what next? The Research Data Support service will now take all of this feedback and use it to inform our future Electronic Notebook strategy for the University. We will work with other areas of Information Services, the Colleges, and Schools to try to provide researchers in all disciplines with the information they need to use ENs in ways that make their research more efficient and effective. If you have any suggestions, comments, or questions about ENs please visit our ENs page (https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/research-support/research-data-service/during/eln). You can also contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The notes that were taken during both events can be read here Combined_discussion_notes_V1.2
Some presentations from the two workshops are available below, others will be added when they become available:
|Mary Donaldson (Service Coordinator, Research Data Management Service, University of Glasgow)||Jisc Research Notebooks Study||Mary_Donaldson_ELN_Jisc|
|Ralitsa Madsen (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Cardiovascular Science)||RSpace||2019-03-14_ELN_RSpace_RRM|
|Uriel Urquiza Garcia (Postdoctoral Research Associate, Institute of Molecular Plant Science)||Benchling|
|Yixi Chen (PhD Student, Kunath Group, Institute for Stem Cell Research)||Lab Archives||20190509_LabArchives_Yixi_no_videos|
|Andrew Millar (Chair of Systems Biology)||WikiBench|
|Ugur Ozdemir (Lecturer – Quantitative Political Science or Quantitative IR)||Jupyter Notebooks||WS_Talk|
|James slack & Núria Ruiz (Digital Learning Applications and Media)||Jupyter Notebooks for Research||Jupyter_Noteable_Research_Presentation|
Kerry Miller, Research Data Support Officer, Research Data Service