Intro rant:

Whether you like it or not, many researchers are switching to electronic lab notebooks. LabArchives has arisen as a popular choice. A growing list of universities and research institutes have contracts with LabArchives, so several thousand researchers now use the platform:

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 11.23.02 PM.png

As one of the older/larger ELN companies, LabArchives is unlikely to go under. That said, the “jack of all trades, master of none” trope certainly describes LabArchives. It’s a versatile platform that can handle many file formats and works okay for research in many different fields. It comes with many widgets that offer half-baked support for key tasks in the field. For example, in my own field of chemistry, it offers a “Chemical Sketcher” widget based on ChemDoodle. It has all of the basic functionalities you’d want… except for integration with the software nearly every chemist actually uses for this purpose (ChemDraw)! It doesn’t even recognize SMILES structures copied from ChemDraw with its so-called SMILES search when searching through these (nearly useless) chemical sketcher entries. Consequently, there is little reason to use widgets like these. I imagine that researchers in other fields have noted similar limitations.

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 11.28.57 PM.png

The general-purpose widgets are similarly disappointing. For example, the spreadsheets widget doesn’t integrate with Excel, and is riddled with bugs that make it nearly unusable for even the simplest tasks.Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 11.47.30 PM.png

Lastly, the smartphone app (at least on Android phones) is a joke. It can’t display images and locks up all the time. It’s barely functional. It’s been this way for years, and my impression is that the developers simply don’t care. The company probably just wants to tick the box of offering a smartphone app.

Interestingly, the website gives falsely elevated numbers for the reviews. I checked the Google Play store on my Android and had my friend check the app store on his iPhone to get the real story:

Screen Shot 2018-06-07 at 10.23.11 PM.png


Pros and Cons (vs. paper):

Pros:

  • Searchable (but you have to be careful to paste in SMILES strings or other useful chemical information if you want to have anything approximating a structure search).
  • The ability to copy and paste is huge (but watch out for “copy forward errors” where you forget to update something!).
  • There’s need to lend someone your notebook for them to have a look.
  • The data is off-site so a disaster in your building will not destroy it.
  • It’s easy to track revision histories for intellectual property claims.
  • Everything you need (e.g., experimental procedures, NMR spectra, MS data) is in one place.
  • Accessible from home, the coffee shop, etc.
  • Can link to electronic versions of literature articles.
  • Good integration with Excel (automatically updates) and with GraphPad Prism.
  • “FolderMonitor” can automatically upload data from a computer (e.g., NMR spectra) as soon as they are generated, providing a convenient off-site backup service and helping to keep all of your data together. In practice, however, the app doesn’t always work.

Cons:

  • It’s a huge pain in the ass to move items around on a page if you have 3 or more. It takes forever—drag and drop would be great here.
  • It’s harder to make sketches electronically; photographing paper sketches is generally easier.
  • Clumsy interface for updating files (should just be drag-and-drop with automatic updating and version history like Google Drive if feasible).
  • Cross-linking pages in notebook can take a while to navigate in their tiny interface for it, particularly once a notebook has a lot of entries. Also, it displays a really small link that’s tough to notice unless you’re specifically looking for it.
  • Fundamentally less portable to the bench unless you have a dedicated computer.
  • There’s no good way to keep track of a lot of images. You can upload them all and see individual thumbnails, or can paste them in rich text entries, but you have to double-click them and type in dimensions to resize them, and you have very little control over their positioning. Implementing something like Google Photos or Flickr would be good for keeping track of multiple images.
  • Switching platforms is nearly impossible once you get going with one.
  • (Very rare): You may not have access due to network problems. In my experience, these are usually my university’s fault and not LabArchives’s, however, and LA does a good job of minimizing interruptions due to system updates (they are usually at 1 AM on Saturday nights if memory serves).

In my field, it’s possible to cobble together a decent notebook entry for organic synthesis experiments. My next post will explain how to do just that.

One thought on “Electronic vs. paper lab notebooks—should you switch? (LabArchives review)

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