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Eliminating paper to maximise research assets

It’s all very well discussing cutting edge artificial intelligence and machine learning, but the truth is that the real-world challenge lies in human engagement and most laboratories still face the need to ensure all their researchers are on the same page – a digital one...

Top 3 Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELN)

This is a video summary of the "The 9 Best Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELN) Review" article on Splice Blog. We summarized the best 3 ELNs in our opinion, based on the most common requirements stated by life science researchers. Read the full article Finalists: 1. SciNote 2. RSpace 3. Benchling

A paperless laboratory has a stronger foundation

“The laboratory of the future will continue to be a key focus for organisations as they increasingly look to implement strategies that automate workflows and facilitate process efficiency. The first, critical step in achieving this is to eliminate paper from processes. However, the majority of quality control laboratories are still heavily dependent on paper and have been slow to implement electronic solutions. By first focusing on moving to a paperless solution, though, laboratories will build a strong foundation on which to add in automation and integration. Through digitalising their data capture, data will become available in real time, facilitating faster, well-informed decisions as well as ensuring better data integrity and compliance to standard operating procedures.”

Sinéad Cowman, Global BD & Marketing Manager - Informatics, Lonza

Implementing an electronic research notebook

In a blog published in February 2020, Jisc experts looked at why researchers continue to use paper trails and how to help those institutions that continue to struggle to implement technology to help them…

Data loss can happen to the best of us. Winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry, Frances Arnold, has had to retract a paper because the results were not reproducible. One of the reasons for the retraction was missing data from a lab notebook.

"Keeping track of tests results, calculations and thought processes digitally helps to ensure research is reproducible."

While most next generation researchers recognise that digital records will enable them to capture the large volumes of data generated in today’s laboratories and share this information more easily across teams, it is widely agreed that vast numbers of researchers still use pen and paper when recording primary results. And, while digital records can also ensure reproducibility and protect intellectual property by capturing exactly who has created particular insights and when, institutions still struggle to find a solution to suit the broad requirements of their varied research departments.

Finding the right electronic notebook can be paralysing

Alastair Downie, head of IT at the Gurdon Institute and director at The Company of Biologists, has been trying to identify a suitable electronic notebook product for his institution for years.

“There is no doubt that researchers and institutions want to switch, but researchers are paralysed by choice and dazzled by programs that offer specialist, discipline-specific software features, when in fact all they really need is a basic, reliable and secure documentation platform."

"At the same time, research groups are becoming increasingly multi-disciplinary with diverse workflows, interests and preferences – it’s impossible to find a product that will satisfy all of their specialist interests."

“Researchers are also fearful of disruption. Committing to a service over which they have little control is a big step, and it can be painful to disengage from that service, should it prove to be unsuitable."

Valerie McCutcheon at the University of Glasgow, together with Jisc, ran a series of workshops across the UK that asked primary researchers to demonstrate digital notebook tools, rather than the platform suppliers themselves. Based on those workshops, they put together a list of requirements to help universities and researchers select a tool that meets their needs and policy requirements.

One solution won’t suit everyone

Jo Montgomery coordinates and delivers training on electronic lab books at the Babraham Institute. He has done so since OneNote was implemented in 2019 as an institutional research notebook platform following a researcher-led scoping exercise.

“A lot of the key requirements can be met by existing commercial software such as OneNote.”

“Our OneNote data is stored through SharePoint in such a way that it meets legal requirements and obligations of funding bodies. Many of the more bespoke electronic laboratory notebook software has data stored in the US or there are grey areas over ownership of data which is not compliant with UK Research and Innovation funding requirements,” explained Montgomery.

The Babraham Institute selected OneNote for its flexibility across research fields and the assurance around longevity and security offered by Microsoft as a trusted global brand. Takeup of the solution increased rapidly alongside the provision of training. However, OneNote won’t satisfy everyone. If you need author and witness signature for patent protection that is not available ‘out of the box,’ you would need customisation or a different tool.

The University of Glasgow has produced a guide about the use of OneNote as a research notebook, based on the experiences researchers at the university reported while implementing the tool.

Implementing new technologies across large teams can be both intimidating and thankless. Persuading a group of individual researchers to evolve their working practices and adopt standardised recording approaches can be a bit like asking a group of cats to share a single mouse. But upcoming generations, who have been brought up with digital technologies, are far more likely to accept and understand the need for a centralised solution, or at least an agreement to adopt only solutions that are compatible with a central database.

Generational skills gaps can limit options

Dr Mary McVey, who teaches biology at the University of Glasgow, noted that practical IT skills and support are key to any successful system and introducing best practice early on was a useful tactic.

“It is incredibly important to look at the digital skills and capabilities of students as well as staff within the lab setting. We tried to implement R-Space and Microsoft Teams and there were pros and cons for both. Practical IT issues prevented some researchers pursuing with these tools. Robust IT support is essential for research notebooks to be implemented to support those who may not yet know how to resolve technical issues as they occur while everyone gets used to the systems. Researchers are keen, but don’t always want to be the first ones to try something new. Introducing best practice early on and setting our students on a path we want them to go on is important for their future progression."

It was suggested in a blog by Alastair Downie that Jisc build a product that incorporated the basic requirements of an electronic research notebook that would suit all disciplines, from physicists to musicians. Providing a framework for commercial providers to develop bolt-on specialist features. But, rather than attempting to build a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, Jisc believes it can respond more effectively to the human and organisational challenges around the implementation of electronic research notebooks by engaging with existing platforms.

A procurement framework for electronic research notebooks

Christopher Brown, senior design manager and Jisc lead on research notebooks, believes there is a role for Jisc to support researchers and encourage the use of research notebooks.

"Researchers and research groups tend to adopt a solution that satisfies, or mostly satisfies, their needs. This has led to different solutions across research groups. We do recognise that this is challenging for institutions, especially when researchers use many different tools. IT departments particularly are faced with a myriad of tools and systems which must be tested, procured and supported.”

“Now we have a clearer understanding of the practical requirements of these electronic research notebooks, we’ll be looking to develop a procurement framework for research notebooks. This will be an open framework, where vendors can submit their tool for assessment. Jisc will assess the tool and, if it satisfies the requirements, it will be added to the framework. Such a framework will reduce the burden on institutions to review and assess electronic lab notebooks and help towards the adoption of open standards and interoperable solutions.”

Jisc is the member organisation that provides UK universities and colleges with shared digital infrastructure and services, such as the superfast Janet Network. You can read the full blog on the Jisc website: ‘Turning the page on paper notebooks creates a digital dilemma’ Further reading on the future of research can be found in a Jisc-supported interim report (pdf) from independent think tank Demos, which is currently investigating the potentially transformative impact of artificial intelligence, robotics, and other emerging technologies on research. If you would like to discuss electronic research notebooks or ask questions and share ideas, join the JiscMail forum or email christopher.brown@jisc.ac.uk