Commentary about the Nature-Toolbox article by Roberta Kwok (August 6th, 2018)
Laboratory Notebooks (LN) play a key role in research since they are the primary documentation platform for research experiments and should contain all information about the experimental execution. For decades, the paper-based format has not changed and, only in recent years, various electronic solutions are emerging (eLN). This shift from paper-based LN to eLN seems to be obvious and necessary since paper lab notebooks cannot provide several comforts that eLNs can provide, such as easy data sharing, searching functionalities, linking to electronic data and more. However, of course there are also several disadvantages, such as dependency on software producer and equipment, and finding the fit-for-purpose product for your research unit within all the different solutions provided on the market. For the last point, Roberta Kwok provides excellent guidance with several key aspects to consider when choosing an electronic solution. These aspects include items such as
A) deep research of different ELNs on the market,
B) cost calculations,
C) understanding the legal issues,
D) evaluating the long term availability of all data linked to the ELN,
E) accessibility via mobile devices,
F) integration of the software into other platforms,
E) possibility to test software,
F) commitment to change to an ELN within a research unit.
We want to stretch the point of ‘data availability’ which can become an issue if an ELN is no longer in use and data sets are not (properly) accessible any longer. It is therefore important to know what will happen with all uploaded/stored data if the ELN company/provider goes bankrupt, is sold to another company or the research organisation decides to change to another ELN because a new product provides a better or cheaper solution.
Most often, accessibility will be guaranteed by the ELN provider and an export functionality will be available. However, the export of data can also come in different formats: usually, an export will be possible to XML or pdf. This will ensure that data can be read but all other functionalities will be limited. Thus, it would be favourable if the data could be exported in a format that is readable by other applications and that allows full integration into other lab software programs. Given that most software companies develop their own data and file formats, this is hardly ever the case. Therefore, more standardised data format protocols will be needed to overcome this barrier.