The Problem with Paper Notebooks

The laboratory notebook is one of the most important tools for data management in the laboratory and in its paper format, it’s also one of the most problematic.

The paper laboratory notebook has historically been the place to record all of the information about an experiment: experimental data, experimental observations, the researcher’s thoughts, etc. Much of this is still true today, with the exception that most of our research data is digital and doesn’t fit nicely into a paper format. Instead, we print out tables and graphs and tape them into our notebooks as a bad approximation of a complete laboratory record.

Because of digital research, we’ve fundamentally divided our data from the document that records the context of that data. This is a problem because data without context are useless, as is context without the data. So we do our best to partner the two disparate systems of paper and electrons in order to have a usable laboratory record. This is frustrating, difficult to do well, and is having a major impact on the way we manage our data.

The best solution to the paper-digital divide is to fundamentally change the way we record information in the laboratory by using electronic lab notebooks. Having both the data and their context be digital and stored together will dramatically improve organization and searching. Additionally, e-lab notebook software is finally becoming viable and such systems are slowly being integrated into laboratories around the world. The benefits (and drawbacks) of e-lab notebooks require their own separate post, which I promise to write soon.

In the absence of an e-lab notebook, here are several suggestions for bridging the paper-digital divide:

  • Use one organization scheme. If your notebook is organized chronologically then your digital files should be organized in the same way. This will make it easier to find things.
  • Organize your digital files with respect to the notebook that they belong with. This may involve keeping a separate folder for each notebook you use.
  • Record the computer on which the digital files are stored (but remember that files may move).
  • Utilize indexes. You should definitely have one for your paper notebook and it would be useful to have an electronic version.
  • Keep your data with your lab notebook by writing all of the relevant digital files to disk and tucking that disk inside the cover of the paper notebook.
  • Digitally back up your paper notebooks by scanning them and storing the notes in the same folder as the data.

There are several other issues with paper lab notebooks (legibility, fragility, difficulty of searching, effort to back up), but the paper-digital divide is one of the biggest obstacles to to good data management in the laboratory. This problem is solvable by transitioning entirely to digital, but we need to be sure to do this in a smart way that ensures access to our data for years to come. In the meantime, small changes can make a big difference.

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