Electronic lab notebooks and the future of science discussed at Labfolder workshop

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I was fortunate to attend a Labfolder workshop on the 2nd and 3rd of June 2016 in Berlin (Germany). This was the opportunity to discuss user experiences of Labfolder’s electronic lab notebook (eLN), but also to talk more generally about digital science tools and their integration the researcher’s workflow. I thought I would share what I’ve learned during that session.

The session first started with a presentation of the smartLAB initiative from the Institute of Technical Chemistry at Leibniz University Hannover (Germany). There, a research group is developing the lab of the future, both on the hardware and software integration side. They have a few fascinating videos that shows very concretely what a fully digitalized laboratory could soon look like.

A prototype of their concept developed with several partners including Labfolder has already been presented to the public earlier this year. Dr. Patrick Lindner represented the project, and mostly talked about their smartLAB’s efforts to connect laboratory instruments to the internet and about their collaboration with Labfolder to directly feed the data back to an eLN.

Then, Dr. Alexander Grossman discussed about the ScienceOpen platform that he launched in 2014. ScienceOpen now aggregates of over 15 million articles, with the possibility of post-publication peer review (commenting) and articles rating. But ScienceOpen is also set up as a publishing platform. Researchers can prepare manuscripts directly on the platform, then release their draft as a publication when they are ready. The article then relies on post-publication peer review for its quality control, receiving only an editorial check before publication. Perhaps the future of scientific publication?

Prof. Ulrich Dirnagl, director of the department of Experimental Neurology at the Charité medical university in Berlin (Germany), gave an impressive talk about their efforts to bring data management into the 21st century. They realized that electronic lab notebooks are essential to improve sustainability of data, its findability, and the reproducibility of experiments. He pointed out to an article he published at the beginning of 2016 that constitutes a handbook for introducing eLN in academic life sciences laboratories. He starts the article with this striking image of two lab notebook entries looking very similar despite over a hundred years of history separating them. His message: surely we can do better today.

Image from Dirnagl, U. & Przesdzing, I. A pocket guide to electronic laboratory notebooks in the academic life sciences. F1000Res. 5, 2 (2016).

Image from Dirnagl, U. & Przesdzing, I. A pocket guide to electronic laboratory notebooks in the academic life sciences. F1000Res. 5, 2 (2016).

Prof. Dirnagl also explained how he led efforts to equip his department with an ISO 9001- certified quality management system. First, this means they had to think about a system to manage the quality of the work conducted in the department (which is already beyond what any lab I have worked in has ever done). Then, they had to made sure this system would meet the type of strict requirements ISO norms usually entail. A courageous initiative since ISO norms are nearly never found in academic laboratories, which are more accustomed to improvisation than standardization. Although it required habit changes, Prof Dirnagl explained the personnel was overall enthusiastic about the changes and that the laboratory is now certified. Prof. Dirnagl is now assessing the impact of the certification on the quality of research and is reflecting about alternative quality-control standards that could be more adapted to academic setting.

Of course industrials routinely adopt such standards because of strict regulations and the strong marketing impact ISO-certifications can have. Dr. Sam Moré is director of a nanotechnology company called DendroPharm that develops nano-drug delivery vehicles for veterinary applications. Dr. Moré explained that their quality management system is also certified ISO 9001 and described how the use of a eLN was essential in that process.

Finally, on day 2, Joram Schimmeyer a PhD student in the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam (Germany) presented his digital research workflow. He explained how nearly all of his work is now in digital form and how an eLN fits perfectly in that workflow.

In addition to these amazing talks, the workshop was an opportunity to talk about the future of the electronic lab notebook and how they fit in the future of science as a whole. These were interesting discussions, that I leave for another post.

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