For a long time now I’ve been trying to find a way of recording my work in some form of electronic lab book. My handwriting is terrible, unless I really concentrate and it’s not helped by some appalling spelling (thanks, dyslexia!) so my lab book tends to consist of a lot of very short notes which are only translatable by me – and some times, not even that. So for me, moving to an electronic lab book would be ideal, not to mention all the other nifty features (search, Cloud backup and easy sharing) that would really improve the way I use my lab notes.
So after much searching, I came across a number of possible solutions – although the title of this post might give you a clue as to which one I favour…
The basic idea for this, is to just write my lab notes on my computer as word/excel files. It’s by far the simplest solution but also the most irritating. To do this I need to firstly keep the folders on my HDD impeccably organised and always remember to take my laptop with me every time I am in the lab or having a meeting. Neither of which is very likely to happen.
I tried this out for a little while but it never worked well, the word documents ended up being over-ly neat versions of a hand written lab book. Which I’m sure is good for anyone wanting to use my work but it didn’t really solve anything, it just added an extra step of typing things up.
There are a number of pre-existing online solutions for this, such as eCAT and MyLabBook. Having tried out a few, my general feeling is that they are big on features but appear to have forgotten that actual humans need to use them – and are about as user friendly as a soup spoon without a handle. I am being a little harsh and some do look better than others, but often the nicer looking ones are quite pricey and marketed towards large companies rather than individual researchers or students.
Cloud storage solutions
There are existing Cloud services such as dropbox, google drive and iCloud which provide storage for documents. These services work pretty well as they solve some of the problems of the Home Brew model but are much nicer to use than the web-based ones. To be honest, the only down-side is that they are a bit clunky when using with a large range of mixed media such as tablets and photos.
Evernote is kind of the best of all of the above, rolled into some very nice apps. Evernote and its suite of companion apps (skitch and penultimate) provide an excellent range of features allowing for PDF storage, annotation, drawing, note taking, audio recording and embedding photographs; all of which are then synced with the Cloud – so that I can access them on any device that is capable of running a browser.
Evernote is free for a basic package which so far has been more than enough for my purposes. Rather than charging you for space like most other Cloud solutions, Evernote works on a bandwidth pricing so the free service gets you 60 MB per month worth of uploads, which for lab notes has so far been more than enough. You can view an example of an experiment I ran this morning HERE.
None of these solutions (excluding the large scale commercial ones) solve the problem of making these electronic lab books stand up to legal scrutiny. As every undergrad should be aware, your lab book is not only a record of your data but it is a legally-defensable record of your data – which is vital for proving prior-art or even simply demonstrating the validity of your data. Pen and ink are a very good, un-editable record of your work that is still the gold standard for proving your work.
For now I am going to try sticking with Evernote and see how I get on. For sensitive commercial use it might not be applicable but for my current self driven projects and semi-open contract work, it’s an ideal little solution to bring lab books kicking and screaming into the Cloud based world.
If you have a better suggestion or think I’m wrong about some of others I’ve dismissed, then I would love to here about it in the comments. Trolls will be fed cookies, condescendingly patted on the head and made to watch CBeebies until they calm down.