How Hard Is It to Switch from Paper to an Electronic Lab Notebook blog

How Hard Is It to Switch from Paper to an Electronic Lab Notebook?

5 min read

If you are working in the lab you would probably relate to the fact that new ideas and especially ideas about the use of new digital solutions in the lab can be a bit of an obstacle to be accepted by the rest of the team and the PI.

Today, we are having a conversation with Jana Erjavec, PhD about handling the situations when your ideas get stuck and how to switch form paper to an electronic lab notebook.

Jana, you started your career as a scientist, winning a couple of awards for special achievements in the field of biotechnology. Later on you switched to business and decided to focus on taking the scientific ideas from the lab out to the world and develop software solutions that can help scientists manage their increasing amounts of data. Can you tell us more about what was the trigger behind this major switch in your career?

I realized that I wanted to upgrade my research knowledge with entrepreneurial skills. I’ve always been fascinated with the rapid progress in science but I realized that despite having the advanced equipment, many researchers are still using very old and non-intuitive software to support their work. I wanted to see the impact of my ideas and develop new solutions for scientists, to improve the way research data is managed, shared and analysed.

If we focus on your days working as a scientist, did you ever propose the use of a new digital solution in your former lab?

When I was still working in the lab I actually did some research on different electronic lab notebooks and different electronic tools that we could use for our everyday research. However, that was about 5 years ago and at that time options for an affordable price were still quite limited. Our department had 40 employees and basically everything that I have seen would cost us more than $50,000 a year and that was a lot of money for us back then. Besides that, the available solutions were not very intuitive or user-friendly. They would either not fit into the diagnostic lab or they would not fit into a research lab so it was hard for us to decide on one solution. So I put that idea on hold for a while and decided to wait for a more appropriate solution.

“One of the major issues is when a person leaves the lab. It is impossible to track down their data and therefore impossible to compare the new data with the old data.

Did you have to face reluctance or encouragement from your colleagues?

While I was doing research on available electronic lab notebooks solutions, I received positive response from my colleagues. But as soon as they saw the prices, we agreed that it was not the time to implement such solution. Also at that time I was very disappointed with the user experience that the available solutions provided. Software simply wasn’t intuitive, there were a lot of drop-down menus etc. Now I realize that my thinking was just a bit ahead of the market. Many researchers back then were still very reluctant to change. Actually, when I think about it now, they were proudly showing off how many paper notebooks they already filled and are keeping on the shelves. Which is not a bad practice, but it just can’t cope with the growing amounts of data and the advances in modern technology.

To be honest I am a bit surprised that researchers who are by nature very curious and very progressive are so reluctant to switch from paper to electronic lab notebooks.

Now all this is slowly changing. Researchers are generating more and more data with each experiment. It is not possible to glue everything into the lab notebook. One of the major issues is when a person leaves the lab. It is impossible to track down their data and therefore impossible to compare the new data with the old data. 17% of research data is lost every year because we cannot find it and reuse it. Now is the time when it will become absolutely necessary to digitally store the data in a systematic and organized way. And by this I mean more than just separate our data in folders. Digital notebooks (ELNs) are becoming more user-friendly now and researchers have several affordable options to choose from.

What do you think is the reason behind researchers’ reluctance to change?

I believe there are several reasons why majority of researchers did not switch to an electronic laboratory notebook yet. First of all is that for a long time there were no free solutions available for academia and smaller research institutions. Also, there was no solution that would enable interoperability, be mobile-friendly and easy-to-use at the same time. The third one and one of the most important reasons is that changing existing habits is hard. I like to compare implementation of electronic lab notebooks with running. It’s really hard for the first week but after second week of running it becomes easier and after third week you couldn’t really imagine you wouldn’t run. It’s the same with electronic lab notebooks. In the first week it is not very intuitive to write everything down on your computer or take the tablet to your lab etc. You need a little time to get used to it but after you get used to it, in a week or two, you begin to see the advantages of an electronic system. You have everything in one place, you can easily search through your data using keywords and you can find all your data instantly.

What would be your advice for scientists who would like to use the digital notebooks available today, but are facing reluctance from their colleagues or their boss?

It really depends on the workplace. In the companies it is really important that the system the employees are using is unified and therefore that the entire team is using the same electronic lab notebook on which everyone must agree. In the academic circles it is different. At many Universities and Institutes that I know, employees have the freedom to choose the best tools for their research. The only limitation is usually the price. In general, researchers can use the electronic lab notebooks individually. However, it would make sense that the entire team uses the same system. That way they can review the research data, share protocols and save a lot of time normally intended for the update meetings.

“I believe that great scientific software for collaboration will significantly reduce the time needed to prepare for meetings and promote collaboration between different research groups.

In general it is necessary to find the right motivation within the team which is not always easy to do. Researchers like to have freedom to choose the tools they want to use. This represents a challenge for professors and PIs when it comes to implementation. When introducing a potential solution to your colleagues it is necessary to try out the system first to see how it would fit in your team. Get to know advantages and disadvantages. Contact the support team and see how responsive they are. Figure out whether there are any hidden costs or not. Get all information about the safety of your data. Be prepared to answer team members’ questions or concerns. There are very good free ELNs available today so even the budget might not be a problem. But it is necessary to explain clearly how everyone on team will benefit of using an ELN.

Looking back, do you miss your days working as a scientist?

I am constantly following the latest trends in science. Maybe even more than I did when I was still working as a researcher. My everyday work keeps me in contact with amazing researches from around the globe and the latest research findings. So do I miss the work at the bench? Actually no, I don’t. However, I am happy that I am a part sciNote team so I can contribute in changing the future of scientific data management.

Thank you!