we were talking with Beatrix Adam and Birte Lindstädt
Introducing an electronic lab notebook (ELN) often represents the initial spark that prompts people to reflect on their research data management and take further steps.
We spoke with research data experts Beatrix Adam and Birte Lindstädt from the ZB MED, who have recently published the ELN Guide “Electronic lab notebooks in the context of Research Data Management and good scientific practice – a guide for life sciences” (“Elektronische Laborbücher im Kontext von Forschungsdatenmanagement und guter wissenschaftlicher Praxis – ein Wegweiser für die Lebenswissenschaften” – link in German language); it discusses the role infrastructure institutions could play in this context, among other issues. The guide was developed, in part, by gleaning best-practice examples from interviews with specialists.
The handout supports those responsible for information infrastructures as well as researchers in selecting a suitable tool.
How widespread are electronic lab notebooks in research? And what advantages do they offer?
Over the last decade a few “pioneers” have developed suitable processes for introducing electronic notebooks, primarily in the context of funding programmes and in special research areas. Individual researchers have also sometimes recognised the advantages of ELNs and used them for their own purposes. Applications such as Evernote, Onenote, Excel or Powerpoint are also often used to digitalise the documentation of experiments.
The topic is becoming more significant as more and more institutions seek to implement an ELN to make the digitalisation of their laboratory workflow more professional. Apart from the advantages that an ELN gives in this era of increasing digitalisation, the reasoning behind the move is that more and more funding agencies demand research data management that meets the so-called FAIR principles (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Re-usable). Also, publishers follow the policy of publishing research data in addition to the text publication. Using an electronic lab notebook contributes substantially to the reproducibility and reusability of research data, thereby making it easier to access and retrieve research data. Furthermore, an ELN promotes the documentation and traceability of the research process along the lines of good scientific practice.
Advantages of ELNs include:
- Direct integration/linking of data that is already available digitally (such as measurement results, photo, video & audio files)
- No loss of information through illegible handwriting or transcription errors
- Search and filter functions
- Functions for collaborative working (rights management, role management)
- Compiling and use of templates (for example for recurring processes)
- Embedding in a networked, digital research environment (API, standard interfaces, import/export functions, link to repositories, and others)
Who is your ELN guide aimed at?
On the one hand, the guide is aimed at people who have been entrusted with implementing an ELN at an institutional level – for example, those responsible for information structures. It is also intended, however, to support individual researchers who are interested in the topic by giving them useful background knowledge.
What role do electronic lab notebooks play in the context of research data management or open science?
First of all, the ELN aids the documentation of research data and research findings in the context of metadata as well as in the context of setting up experiments and the actual experiment results: Raw data can be integrated without media disruption and, for example, linked with written records and integrated in workflows. Ideally, the ELN is one component in an entire system of tools for research data management. It can, for example, replace data with other research software such as analysis tools, or prepare it in formats that are suitable for publication or long-term archiving. Our case studies have also shown that introducing an ELN often provides the initial spark that leads researchers to reflect on their research data management and introduce further steps such as developing data storage centrally.
When selecting an ELN tool, the requirements of those doing the research must take priority; it must be possible to fully illustrate the research processes. This includes the input possibilities for data, file formats for import and export, sample management, and functions for collaboration. The requirements for good scientific practice, the possibilities of linking to systematic research data management, IT requirements and data security also play a role. To achieve as wide an acceptance as possible during implementation, the usability and performance of the software must also be right. The tool should be easy and intuitive to use and show good responsiveness and stability under the usual workload conditions. We recommend pre-selection of two or three tools which should then be tested in as realistic a test procedure as possible. It is very important that those who will be using the ELN are involved in the implementation. Support mechanisms such as a hotline, quick-start instructions, training documents, and so forth, should be available.
What role do libraries and other infrastructures play? And what would you recommend them to do?
Libraries can play a coordinating, supportive or leading role in the selection, testing and implementation of an ELN as well as in the preparation of the corresponding infrastructures. They can develop and evaluate tools, such as needs-requests and test-questionnaires for the selection and the tests, and take on the monitoring during operations. Libraries can also offer support by preparing information in the form of FAQs and training documentation, for example. Other tasks can be administrating licences, and, working with the relevant IT colleagues, driving forward the integration of the ELN into the infrastructure available and developing new infrastructure, (for instance repositories, long-term archiving, data storage concept, integration of monitored vocabularies). In this context, we see an important role as being the communication interface between the researchers and laboratory staff on the one hand and those responsible for the IT on the other: it’s extremely important that the processes and requirements from the lab are understood precisely, in order to select a suitable ELN or make the necessary adjustments.
On the other hand, researchers must also be made aware of the benefit of the ELN within the overall context of research data management and to take a certain amount of care during the documentation (for example describing the research data sufficiently using metadata). The library can also serve as an interface to the research institution’s directors or the research dean’s office – for example, regarding the budget for the implementation of an ELN.
What best practices exist?
We have described five examples more closely in our guide. These are the Charité Berlin/Berlin Institute of Health, ETH Zurich, HHU Düsseldorf, Robert Koch Institute and University Medical Center Göttingen. Other examples that we link to in the guide are the Leibniz Institute on Aging – Fritz Lipmann Institute, Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, Max Planck Society as well as the Chemotion ELN and the Belab Project. We highlight the University of Michigan as an international example.
Your ELN Guide deals with life sciences. To what extent is it possible to transfer its content to other specialist fields?
We have primarily concentrated on tools that are suitable for life sciences. Fundamentally, the approach described in the implementation of electronic lab notebooks with the “stations” of selection, test and implementation can be also relevant to other fields. We regard necessary adjustments to be particularly in the needs-request area here.
Most of the requirements of an ELN (for instance usability, performance, exit strategies) described can also be transferred to other fields. Some of the requirements, in contrast, must in principle also be considered in other fields. Here, however, their specifications must be adjusted. There are probably other regulatory requirements than, for example, those of the HIPAA (U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) or the ISO standard 15189 (Medical laboratories — Requirements for quality and competence) that are relevant to the life sciences fields.
After training as a technical informatics assistant, Beatrix Adam started out as a database programmer in the telecommunications industry. She later worked for around 18 years in data processing for direct marketing. Here the preparation of raw data was a priority in terms of consistency and the implementation of duplication alignment and data enhancement, as was the development of scripts for automating routine tasks. Since 2018 she has worked for ZB MED as an employee in the research data management department on the topic of electronic lab notebooks in the context of research data management. She developed an information basis for electronic lab notebooks and also co-authored the ELN Guide.
Following her degree in economic geography, Birte Lindstädt worked for around 15 years in consultancy and market research. From 2010 to 2014 she was project manager and group coordinator of the Goportis – Leibniz library network for research information. Between 2012 and 2014 she worked successfully towards a MALIS degree (Master in library and information science), and since 2014 she has been the head of the research data management department at ZB MED in the programme field open access – digital long-term archiving – research data management.
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