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SciBarCamp report: Digital lab notebooks

by PhilipJ on 16 March 2008

The first SciBarCamp is going on this weekend at Hart House at the University of Toronto. The basic idea of SciBarCamp is that of “a gathering of scientists, artists, and technologists for a weekend of talks and discussions.” The kinds of things that have been discussed this weekend are the forefront of science (quantum gravity, synthetic biology, open access, scientific software), and the interactions with science and technology and art. There’s an extremely interesting mix of people here today, from quantum information theorists from the Perimeter Institute to social scientists from OCAD, grad students, science writers, musicians, etc. Quite the eclectic group.

The “un“conference opened up with what was perhaps the most interesting discussion for me. It was by Corie Lok from Nature Networks and John Dupuis from York University on “Science 2.0”, or basically how technology is changing first the way we do science, and then how we publish and track science. Things like Connotea and were discussed as ways to keep track of relevant journal articles, but the discussion was dominated by discussion about keeping track of your experiments, and how this is changing in laboratory environments.

Many labs are moving to an all-digital lab notebook. Gone are pens and paper as the primary means of keeping track of your experiments, and they are instead being replaced by digital equivalents, such as wikis or some other, commercial software (which I unfortunately didn’t catch any names, but a google search brings up all kinds of examples). The advantages of such a “notebook” are clear: entirely searchable, easily referenced with hyperlinks, the ability to keep digital images and snippets of code, etc. There is also an advantage which hadn’t been discussed, but is something I’ve long thought about: legibility! If you’ve ever looked in another scientists notebook, you will quickly find that their writing may be atrocious (guilty as charged), and it quickly becomes an exercise in frustrating trying to interpret what was written.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this is being embraced in a big way by the big pharma companies, where it is crucial to have detailed records, and to keep them for a long time (something like the lifetime of a drug being sold + ten years). But there’s an advantage to graduate students in academic laboratories that hadn’t been addressed in the discussion, that came to me as I was talking about this to another grad student friend. It’s that of the copies. I graduated from SFU with my Master’s less than a year ago, but I could tell you basically no specific details on some of the more mundane, day to day experiments that I carried out. I’m sure the same thing happens to those who graduate with a PhD, and leave their lab notebooks behind. I’ve decided I want to keep this kind of information, and I’m still early enough in my PhD that it won’t be too hard to change.

To the other scientists reading this blog: have you changed to a digital lab notebook? Have you tried the switch and failed, or have things gone smoothly? What software did you decide on? I’m leaning towards a wiki, and I’ve decided it will be necessary to keep a paper notebook as well, but to make it degenerate information which will, at the end of every day, always end up in the digital notebook as well.

  1. Mad Omicist    3262 days ago    #

    I’ve gone with a wiki at one of the labs I’ve worked in. It went quite well, but the main problem I encountered was that it was hard to consult my notebook or jot quick notes in it during experiments. It wasn’t a total deal breaker for me, but I certainly did miss my physical lab notebook sometimes.

    Another problem I encountered was that MediaWiki was too cumbersome in terms of uploading things like equations, pictures of gels, diagrams, and so on; that made me tend to either procrastinate in updating my notebook, or just keep a de facto offline notebook part of the time. Those problems could probably be solved by picking my notebook format and software more carefully.

  2. Axel    3262 days ago    #

    I run a biotech lab at an undergrad institution and usually have a couple of students in the lab at the same time. We are also working on three different projects at the same time. Therefore, it is usually hard for me to keep track of what is going on in the lab. I found it most useful to let students write an online journal summarizing progress in the lab. This does not replace a notebook – instead it complements it. Whereas the notebook contains all the experimental details, the journal just reflects what worked and what did not. Thus both, the students and I, can keep track of our results much more easily. It also allows me to see what the students struggle with and I can read it a night from home. On a busy day (ususally 7 days a week), this turns out to be a real advantage. The only problem is still that students don’t like to write :-)

  3. Frederick Ross    3262 days ago    #

    I’ve been using an electronic notebook for a while now. I use the labbook class in LaTeX, organized by date then experiment, and I keep everything from an experiment under the same date instead of breaking it across days.

    For computer files, I have a directory support_files with subdirectories for year then month, then one for each experiment, where I keep all the necessary files, both images to be embedded in the lab book, code I’ve run, files, etc.

    I print it out and put it in a binder with page protectors, keep a backup copy on an external hard drive and the server the IT department here provides to the lab.

    Actually, I keep a couple notebooks in parallel: one for cloning, one for experiments, one for theory and analysis. This has worked out reasonably well.

    I don’t worry about being able to demonstrate that I did what I said when I said. I’m in a relatively slow and noncompetitive field. But if I were in a field where I had to be able to back up what I’m doing with hard records, I would keep my lab book in git (, which uses a SHA1 hash to locate commits. Commit daily, keep a hard record of the SHA1 strings from the latest commit, and then you can guarantee that the history is what it appears to be all the way back to the beginning. This is something you might keep in a hard-bound journal with numbered pages, just writing line after line of 20 digit hashes.

  4. guy barbato    3262 days ago    #

    i am a genetics faculty member and have a small lab. we’ve been using pacific.northwest.national.labs eln for several years:

    it works on any platform (linux/mac/windows) and is served via apache/tomcat. simple to set up; easy to use; trivial to backup/save.

    it is no longer being developed… so, we don’t have the level of integration that i’d like to see (e.g., with genomic databases, etc). but the code is available.

    i highly recommend it on several levels… but, your comment on keeping parallel e- and paper- notebooks is well taken.

  5. Damien Marsic    3261 days ago    #

    I have been using ORNL enote1.12 for several years. It’s a web based open source electronic lab notebook. Easy to configure, adapt, backup and use. It’s written in Perl but a new Java version is coming soon.

    I installed it on a local Linux server in our lab and restricted access to selected users based on IP address. I configured it so that each user can view (but not modify) everyone else’s notebook. It’s easy to do text searches and to include pictures or any other file.


  6. Lee Tanzer    3261 days ago    #

    Two points:

    1. What are the provisions for signature and counter-signature in your electronic notebooks to satisfy patent protection requirements.

    2. Have any of you tried Evernote, software – basically a endless electronic paper tape to capture notes, images, documents,web pages…
    It has OCR, hand writing recognition, and electronic forms capabilities, as well as auto and manual indexing capabilities

  7. PhilipJ    3261 days ago    #

    Great comments all, keep them coming!

    Lee, the signature issue did come up, and in the commercial software there is apparently a way to apply digital signatures. With a private wiki or what have you, this is less obviously possible, but someone did bring up the idea of printing things out, and sending them to yourself via regular snail mail, with your signature across the back, etc, and leaving it closed until such a case that it might be required. I’m not really in that business though, so I’m not sure if that’s sufficient for patents.

  8. Patrick    3261 days ago    #

    CambridgeSoft’s Desktop and Workgroup E-Notebook is a popular choice among academic and small company settings.

    10 of the top 15 pharmaceutical companies use the Enterprise E-Notebook for IP storage, workflow enhancement and scientific collaboration.

    over 300,000 people total have access to the CambridgeSoft E-Notebook.

  9. john    3261 days ago    #

    We tried Cambridgesoft’s notebook last year, and it was a horrible experience – clunky and like something out of the 90s. We also discovered that the data we’d put into the desktop version couldn’t be moved up to the Enterprise version without us paying through the nose. Plus one of my former supervisors who’s now at one of those pharmaceutical companies says that they’re having to pay for all their custom work to be done again when they upgrade the system. I’d steer clear and stick to paper for the moment.

  10. Jean-Claude Bradley    3256 days ago    #

    My organic chemistry group has used the free hosted wiki service at Wikispaces for a few years now and I think it replaces paper fairly well. With the amount of raw data generated in our field, it is not too difficult to link to all of it from the wiki.

    But a wiki is not a good vehicle for communicating milestones and explaining the big picture of our research – we use a blog for that and link back to the relevant experiments on the wiki.

  11. Alexander Polonsky    3224 days ago    #

    There are many labs that are happily using iPad, a free, flexible yet structured ELN: Give it a try as it’s both simple and powerful.

  12. Fred    3219 days ago    #

    I’ve been using Journler [ ].

  13. Rory Macneil    3066 days ago    #

    Philip, I just came across your post and the discussion in the comments. You might be interested in e-CAT, which has just been released for beta testing. e-CAT is the first online lab notebook specifically designed to enable academic lab scientists to conveniently document experiments and manage data online. A variety of lab scientists were closely involved in the design of e-CAT—we have worked hard to make e-CAT a tool that responds to people’s real needs and that they find easy to use. The commercial version will be priced to be affordable – $50 per user per year. I won’t go into details here but e-CAT does support most of the requirements which came up in the comments, e.g. controlled sharing of experiments and digital signatures. You can find out more by watching the introductory videos, and also sign up for the beta testing at

  14. Rob    2929 days ago    #

    Disclaimer; I am affiliated with Rescentris, a commercial ELN company. Yes, Electronic Laboratory notebooks (ELNs) are becoming increasingly popular and important because of government regulations such as 21CFR11, which specify how records must be created, digitally authenticated and archived. Digital lab records that are 21CFR11 compliant are admissible in legal or regulatory proceedings. There are some free ELN’s out there, and we at Rescentris Inc. are all for them if they work for your needs, but sometimes, when you need a really feature-rich tool with support for large organizations and guaranteed regulatory compliance, a commercial solution is a better choice. One example of a modern ELN that is optimized for life-science research is CERF by Rescentris Inc. CERF is both Mac and Windows compatible and fully 21CFR11 compliant. It includes advanced features such as semantic metadata searches and customizable access permissions that help principle investigators to manage and track all the activities in a modern lab staffed by many scientists working on different problems. Check us out at

  15. Steve Parker    2271 days ago    #

    I preferred eNovator its an electronic lab notebook for my research work & it was good.

  16. Rob Hart    2145 days ago    #

    I’ve just made the full switch to an Evernote lab notebook. There’s one more problem that wasn’t mentioned – that is, actually FINDING your notebook. Speaking of which… where did I put it? Oh wait, I don’t need one anymore. Now all I have to do is find any old scrap of paper, write down my experimental notes and then snap a picture directly into Evernote. You can even search your own handwritten notes within Evernote (it has text recognition) – as long as your handwriting isn’t TOO bad.

    You can also upload PDFs and they’re searchable too.

    I suppose there is something about being able to flip through my lab notebook and see my past work that I’ll miss.

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