Dealing with Data
The laboratories at Columbia may be filled with state-of-the-art equipment, but, until recently, researchers relied on a combination of rather low-tech and occasionally random methods of note-taking: cassette tapes and CDs, floppy disks, and notebooks. Last summer, in collaboration with CUIT and the Office of the Executive Vice President for Research, the Libraries offered faculty and students a twenty-first century alternative to this inefficient mix of documentation: the electronic lab notebook.
“The electronic lab notebook is a modern solution to the old problem of keeping research findings organized and retrievable,” said William Vanti, Digital Science Librarian in the Science & Engineering Library.
The electronic lab notebook service is intended to streamline record-keeping and data management, lessening the burden on researchers to maintain thorough analog documentation of their findings.
“We recognized a need among researchers for a more advanced and reliable method of collecting and continuously managing data,” said Jane Winland, Director of the Science & Engineering Libraries. “The program resolves the problems posed by using handwritten notebooks and outdated technology for data storage and research management.”
The Libraries licensed the electronic lab notebook platform from LabArchives in 2016 for use among faculty, researchers, staff, and students. The secure, cloud-based service functions as both storage system and professional network: users are able to organize and store research data as well as share findings with colleagues and peers, both in and outside of Columbia.
“LabArchives being electronic has many benefits, which in turn enhance the integrity and reliability of the data in many ways,” said Dr. Michelle Benson, Assistant Director for Research Integrity and Compliance. “[For example,] creating a timestamp for every entry means there is an audit trail – including the person responsible for the edit.”
A faculty member in a clinical department at Columbia, who requested anonymity due to research confidentiality, agreed that LabArchives is a valuable addition to the research community, particularly with regard to data management and documentation.
“LabArchives is becoming an important part of record-keeping…because, as I understand, all materials uploaded to LabArchives are time-stamped and kept there forever,” he said. “[T]here is no mechanism to delete any of them from the server. This is a great feature for reducing the chance of tampering [with] notebooks.”
Other key features of the digital platform are simply designed to save time: data entries are easily searched via keyword or phrase and can be linked to previous notes to minimize repetition and re-writing. LabArchives is also accessible remotely, so researchers can review findings outside of the laboratory.
“We [currently] use LabArchives extensively for six or seven projects, primarily for sharing documents…with project members,” the faculty member added. “Prior to LabArchives, we shared data with e-mail attachments, but it is becoming much rarer to do so… LabArchives fulfills our needs well.”
Available campus-wide in the summer of 2016, the electronic lab notebook service also provides an effective tool for faculty and instructors to teach best practices for data management.
“As a teaching mechanism, electronic lab notebooks are useful in training students to conduct research. The platform encourages students to consider how they or others approach questions associated with research reproducibility, like, which information should I trust? Which data is reliable?” said Amy Nurnberger, Research Data Manager in the Libraries. “This framework instills the understanding that research and results require documentation.”
Specific features of the service, like the ability to upload images to the platform, are also beneficial to students in a laboratory setting.
“Electronic lab notebooks allow students to add photographs to their notebooks, [which] is helpful when they prepare their experimental procedures and also when they collect observations during lab,” said Sarah J. R. Hansen, Ph.D., who co-teaches a chemistry course with fellow lecturer, Joseph C. Ulichny, using the platform. “With over 300 students using [the notebooks] this semester, we’ve encountered new challenges and established best practices for their use in large laboratory classes.”
LabArchives’s platform is also particularly well-suited to the varied interests and wide-ranging needs of the research community at Columbia.
“I think what is unique about the electronic lab notebook is…that it is customizable and can be used as a collaboration space as well as a daily log of experimental procedures,” said Benson. “Truthfully, I believe the purpose of the electronic lab notebook is up to the user.”
Since the platform was made available to the Columbia community, the Science & Engineering Library, which tracks usage of the service along with CUIT, has seen encouraging interest among researchers and students – approximately 1,100 registered users, including a class of more than 300 students.
“There has been a nice curve in uptake since we rolled out the service this fall,” said Nurnberger. “I think as people continue to talk to each other about the strengths of the program, we’ll see even more interest.”
As is expected with use of new technologies, there are technical issues to be resolved, such as the platform’s capacity to host PDFs, but the service is widely considered an essential tool for efficient, successful research.
“[T]he idea of a cloud-based e-notebook is perfect for today’s multidisciplinary research environment,” the faculty member in a clinical department said. “I’m glad that Columbia decided to go for it.”
For more information about LabArchives' electronic lab notebook service, please visit labnotebooks.columbia.edu.