Electronic Lab Notes

A laboratory notebook is one of a scientist's most valuable tools if it is kept up to date, if its entries are complete, detailed and properly authenticated by witnesses, and if it is secure against damage and loss. Electronic notekeeping can be easier and more useful than traditional handwritten records. However, many scientists and lab managers who have relied on traditional paper-based records are concerned about depending on electronically recorded notes. What are the advantages and disadvan

Feb 8, 1987
Howard Kanare
A laboratory notebook is one of a scientist's most valuable tools if it is kept up to date, if its entries are complete, detailed and properly authenticated by witnesses, and if it is secure against damage and loss. Electronic notekeeping can be easier and more useful than traditional handwritten records. However, many scientists and lab managers who have relied on traditional paper-based records are concerned about depending on electronically recorded notes.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of currently available hardware and software? What do you look for in evaluating systems? Is there an ideal electronic notebook system that might someday be standard issue to all scientists?

Why Electronic Notes?

Computers can perform electronically much of the notekeeping that the research scientist traditionally does with pen and paper, including sample documentation, instrument calibration, raw data collection, and data reduction. Automated systems for sample handling and analysis are common in labor-intensive analytical laboratories, making the analyst's job safer, easier and nearly error-free. However, the analyst rarely needs to sit down and write notes the way a research scientist does. In most research labs, expository writing such as describing an invention or stating a hypothesis is still done in handwritten notebooks.

Why have electronic notekeeping systems not yet replaced traditional paper-based notebooks? A comparison of the two systems on five points—reading and writing, mobility, security, storage, and their use in legal matters—reveals the advantages and disadvantages of the electronic notebook.

  • Reading and writing. A pen and notebook are simple tools to use; there is no need for user accounts and passwords, and no difficulty in gaining access. Anyone who can write can make notes, whereas electronic systems require training and knowledge of how to use the system. Good typing is necessary to make efficient entries into a computer-based system. Many scientists who lack this skill never be-come proficient at keyboard entry of information.

    With electronic systems, many people can simultaneously access the same notebook entry. For example, a supervisor can electronically "thumb through" other workers' notes to catch up on their progress even while the notes are being written. Automated data acquisition systems can provide unattended, virtually error-free recording of primary data. Text and graphics can be merged, just as handwritten notes can show graphs and tables on the same page. Computer search and retrieval of electronic notes can be much more efficient than manual indexing and searching.

    Handwritten notes can be useful if written in a language familiar to the user and if the handwriting is legible. Similarly, electronic notes are useful only together with the algorithm needed to translate the electronic code into readable form. In the mid-1970s, U.S. Census records (from 1960) could be read only by a machine that was already in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

    Electronic data that might be useful will become unreadable when the relevant hardware and software are no longer available. Because researchers commonly need to refer to five- or six-year-old research notes, and that many brands of computers have lived and died in that space of time, scientists must be concerned about whether their electronic notes will even be accessible in a few years as technology changes.

  • Mobility. Traditional bound notebooks are small, lightweight and rugged, and can be taken wherever needed. Computer terminals are getting smaller and lighter, but continue to be sensitive to moisture, dust and electronic and magnetic interference. A paper notebook can also be dropped on the floor without damage. Optical disks and molecular scale memory devices (with storage bits on the order of angstroms rather than micrometers) may one day solve the mobility problem. Think of being able to carry around easily a record of all the work you've ever done, or all the work of your colleagues on a relevant subject!

  • Security. Paper-based notebooks can simply be locked away for safekeeping. Keeping a single paper notebook without copies minimizes the chances of proprietary information being altered or stolen. You can deter theft by pasting in the book an antitheft plate, such as those used by libraries. Electronic notebook systems provide several levels of controlled access so that some people can enter data while others are only allowed to read the entries.

    Handwritten data cannot be altered or erased without leaving some trace of the change. Data recorded on tapes and disks, however, can be written over without leaving evidence of the alteration. Electronic data are not recorded in strict physical sequence, as you would in a paper notebook. It also is possible to alter the time and date stamps on files. Thus, the authenticity of the data and the chronology of events kept in an electronic notebook can be questioned. When fully developed, write-once-read-many (WORM) optical disk technology may be useful because original data cannot be erased without leaving some trace of the alteration.

  • Storage. Notes written using archival-quality ink on permanent-durable paper will last indefinitely if stored under proper humidity and temperature, secure from insects, mold and human destruction. Magnetic tapes must be rewound and cleaned and read through certifiers yearly to correct errors that occur during storage. Optical disks are also prone to error as data are obscured through surface degradation or damage. However, redundancy and error-correction schemes can help optical disks last a decade or more with error rates as low as one bit in 1013. To ensure long life, it is necessary to store electronic media as carefully as paper-based records.

  • Notebooks and the law. Many scientists have the mistaken impression that bound notebooks are needed to meet legal requirements of record keeping. Although signed written records are sometimes required, notebooks per se are not required. In patent matters, it may be necessary to prove the date an invention was conceived, or to document the reduction to practice experiments. In such cases, the testimony of scientists and witnesses, substantiated by records, is used.

    Electronic notebook records should be admissible into evidence under the Business Records Exception to the Hearsay Rule in the Federal Rules of Evidence. This provision allows for such admission provided that the record is made in the regular course of business, in a timely manner, and by someone who had personal knowledge of the event. Another witness may also be asked to demonstrate that the record is accurate and has not been altered. This last point can be extremely difficult to substantiate, especially if a personal computer without security safeguards has been used. If the author of a particular passage is also the custodian of the computer used to record the passage, then the author's credibility is questionable.

    Users of electronic notekeeping systems should print out a critical passage as soon as they recognize its importance, and have the passage signed by the author and a witness, as is commonly done for traditional notebook pages. Remember that in a dispute over the date of a discovery, you can prove only the earliest date for which you have a witness's signature on the entry.

What's Available

Many scientists are using popular word-processing programs and integrated spreadsheet plotting programs to condense data into a sort of electronic notebook. While such programs can do at least some of the job, users should beware of the legal pitfalls. Preferably, electronic notebook records should be kept on a mainframe or a local area network whose control is not in the hands of individual users. Access through a microcomputer workstation allows users to collect data and to write passages that are then uploaded to the host computer, stamped with the time and date, and permanently recorded with algorithms that prevent erasure or aberration.

There are several things to consider in choosing software for keeping an electronic lab notebook.

1. Is it compatible with your existing software and hardware?

2. Will it do the jobs you now do by hand (for example, entering text, producing graphics and reports, acquiring data, keeping a data base, doing a search/match)?

3. Are other users satisfied? Talk to people who use the software in the same ways you do.

4. What kind of support is available from the vendor? Is it free?

5. How good are the manuals that accompany the software? Are they clear, understandable and complete?

6. How easy is it to learn the program?

7. Finally, is it really worth it, or can you get by with the system you already have? Do you really need an electronic notebook system?

Electronic notekeeping systems will surely replace handwritten records, but not until hardware exists that is sturdy, durable, and as portable as a paper notebook. As in any computer system, the user must validate the process used to enter, store and display data that the system collects. Voice recognition systems will one day permit identification of the author and witnesses and will allow rapid, easy entry of information merely by speaking to the notebook. High-density storage devices will permit video and text to be integrated so that the notebook itself will be the witness to the experiment.

Kanare is laboratory supervisor for inorganic analysis at Construction
Technology Laboratories, Inc., 5420 Old Orchard Rd., Skokie, IL 60077. This article
is adapted from his book Writing the Laboratory Notebook (American Chemical Society, 1985).
Copyright © 1985, American Chemical Society.

Further Reading

  • "Science Software," Analytical Chemistry, August 1985, pp. 983A-994A. An excellent report on scientific software suitable for data acquisition and manipulation.
  • Science, April 26,4985, pp. 403-470. Eleven articles reviewing the status of computers in research and science education.
  • Law and the Computer by Michael C. Gemignani (CBI Publishing, 1981), and "Evaluating the Credibility of Computer-Generated Evidence" by James. A. Sprowl (Chicago-Kent Law Review, vol. 25, no. 3, 1976, pp. 547-566). Detailed discussions of electronic records and legal matters.