Laboratory Notebooks: A thing of the past?

Laboratory notebooks are essential for reproducing experiments. For years we have been raised in our labs knowing that every action must be written down in our lab notebook. Take a look at this picture of a lab space, which I’m sure looks familiar to most of you.

[caption id="attachment_1565" align="aligncenter" width="375" caption="Check out this image titled “A well-organised mess” on Flickr. It was posted by easternblot who commented on each item in the picture in great detail."]laboratory management[/caption]

Notice those notebooks on the shelf at the top right of the picture? Those are the accumulation of three years of hard work. THREE. YEARS. All the work of this researcher is sitting on a top shelf in a room off the lab. What happened if there was a fire? There goes three years of research. How can we guarantee the survivability and security of that data? When that researcher eventually leaves the lab, what insures that the data won’t leave with him?

Take the latest scandal in the science world as an example. Two retractions were published in November 2009 in Science and Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). The story in short: Two papers were published in 2004 by a Postdoc and several other co-authors from the laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute. A problem arose when others in the lab tried to replicate the Postdoc’s work and could not find his lab notebooks. The rest of the story and its sordid details can be read in A Dark Tale Behind Two Retractions.

The big question we are left with is *what happened to those missing lab notebooks*. (Pondering Blather appropriately reacts to the missing notebook announcement with You lost WHAT?!? )

Perhaps it is now time to ask the questions: Are written lab notebooks a thing of the past? How can we adjust our lab notebooks to the 21st century, taking advantage of technology?

How would you suggest scientists deal with the survivability and security issues of laboratory notebooks? What do you think about ELN and LIMS systems?

Reference: Service, R. (2009). A Dark Tale Behind Two Retractions Science, 326 (5960), 1610-1611 DOI: 10.1126/science.326.5960.1610