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Turning the page on paper notebooks creates a digital dilemma

Switching from paper research notebooks to digital ones proves to be difficult for universities.

Research notebooks have captured the findings and thought processes of inventors for centuries. From Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic sketches of flying machines to Alexander Graham Bell's description of the first successful telephone experiment.

Although research is increasingly conducted digitally and generates large datasets, it is surprising that, while comprehensive data on the use of research notebooks is not available, it is widely agreed that a large majority of university researchers still use good old pen and paper to jot down the primary records of their research.

However, that position is changing.

A new generation of researchers recognise that the volume of digital data their labs generate necessitates new ways to record their findings. Keeping track of tests results, calculations and thought processes digitally also helps to ensure research is reproducible.

The importance of digital note keeping was demonstrated earlier last month, when American scientist, Frances Arnold, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, had to retract her latest paper because the results were not reproducible. One of the reasons for the retraction was missing data from a lab notebook.

Difficult decisions

Why then do researchers continue to use paper trails and institutions struggle to implement technology to help them?

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. He says:

“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."

Choices explained

To get a better idea as to which digital notebook tools work best, Valerie McCutcheon at the University of Glasgow, together with Jisc, has run a series of workshops in Glasgow, Sheffield, London and Durham with demonstrations of the options by primarily researchers, rather than suppliers.

“Based on these workshops, we have now put together a list of requirements to help universities and researchers select a tool that meets their needs and policy requirements,”

says McCutcheon.

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

says Jo Montgomery who coordinates and delivers the Babraham Institute’s training on electronic lab books since OneNote was implemented as an institutional research notebook platform in 2019.

The institute decided on OneNote as their recommended and supported electronic lab notebook, following a researcher-led scoping exercise. Jo adds:

“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.

“We have decided to go with OneNote as it is flexible to the different areas of research studied at The Babraham Institute and we feel assured of longevity and security by Microsoft as a trusted global brand. The number of our research groups and scientists moving to OneNote as an ELN is increasing rapidly as training is being rolled out.”

Patent protection

However, McCutcheon says:

“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. 

Sector-wide solution?

Downie suggests in a recently published blog that Jisc should build a product that satisfies all of the most basic requirements of an electronic research notebook; something that is discipline agnostic and useful to all researchers, whether they are musicians, chemists, historians or programmers. To make the tool work for all, Downie proposes that commercial providers could develop bolt-on specialist features like musical notation tools or chemical structure drawing.

“In this way, researchers can experiment easily with alternative or specialist interfaces and tools without having to disengage from the basic, underlying infrastructure,” says Downie.

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 reserach notebooks:

“One of the recommendations from our next generation research environment co-design challenge was that Jisc shouldn’t build a “one-size fits all” solution, but we should engage with existing platforms to promote the adoption of concepts and standards that are beneficial to Jisc’s members and customers.

"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.”

But there are other things to consider too, Brown explains:

“Electronic notebooks not only serve as an organisational tool and a memory aid, but can also have a role in protecting intellectual property that comes from the research. Research notebooks will be able to capture exactly who has created particular insights and when."

Next generation open to change

Today’s early-career researchers, who have grown up with digital technology, tend to expect and embrace electronic solutions.

Dr Mary McVey, who teaches biology at the University of Glasgow, said:

“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 appears that most of the challenges in getting an electronic notebook right are human and organisational. If it was simply a case of installing software, their use would be commonplace. In reality, it requires careful consideration and evaluation that can’t be rushed.

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. A final report will be launched in April 2020.​

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.