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Going paperless: is now the time?

Posted: 19 March 2008 | John Trigg, Director, phaseFour Informatics | No comments yet

Over the past 40 years, the development of increasingly powerful computers has played a major role in the advancement of laboratory experimentation. Initially, the high processing capabilities of computers were exploited to perform complex calculations at unprecedented speeds, often offline to a company’s main frame.

Over the past 40 years, the development of increasingly powerful computers has played a major role in the advancement of laboratory experimentation. Initially, the high processing capabilities of computers were exploited to perform complex calculations at unprecedented speeds, often offline to a company’s main frame.

Over the past 40 years, the development of increasingly powerful computers has played a major role in the advancement of laboratory experimentation. Initially, the high processing capabilities of computers were exploited to perform complex calculations at unprecedented speeds, often offline to a company’s main frame.

Gradually, as digital technologies progressed, and with the development of the microprocessor, computers were brought into the laboratory and used for data acquisition and data processing. As a consequence, a number of laboratory techniques were revolutionised to such an extent that it is now difficult to believe, by modern standards, just how crude certain measurements had been and also what degree of confidence or accuracy they offered. The cutting out and weighing of chromatography peaks to obtain quantitative data is one such example.

As computers became more prevalent in the laboratory, another of their capabilities started to be exploited, i.e. their ability to manage workflow transactions. This led to enterprising scientists developing simple, custom workflow systems to operate in conjunction with data acquisition and data processing. That is how laboratory information management systems were born. In time of course, as the laboratory software industry grew, we have witnessed the evolution of sophisticated commercial applications that address almost every laboratory function including data acquisition, data processing, workflow management, data and file management, project and study management, etc. The most recent addition to this portfolio is the electronic laboratory notebook (ELN). A glance into the laboratory these days shows a significantly different scene from that of the traditional scientific workplace, where you are more likely to find scientists working with computers than with benchtop equipment and glassware.

As well as the introduction of information technology, another significant change has been the way in which the laboratory is managed, business principles have largely replaced traditional scientific principles. The outcomes of laboratory work are expected to be achieved with increasing efficiency, lower costs and within shorter time frames. The combination of business oriented science, legal compliance, regulatory compliance, corporate governance and health and safety regulations has meant that it is not unusual to find scientists feeling overwhelmed with performance targets, measures and bureaucracy, rather than engaging in scientific debate. Nevertheless, the combination of information technology and modern business practices are responsible for delivering significant increases in laboratory efficiency and productivity, but somehow there still seems to be a level of expectation that information technology could do far more. In addition, if the technology is not right, there is a tendency for scientists to want to fix it, or find ‘workarounds’, and this can become a distraction from their scientific objectives.

The arrival of electronic laboratory notebooks finally heralds the possibility of the ‘paperless’ laboratory, bearing in mind that ‘paperless’ only refers to the use of paper as an archive medium. Taking paper out of the equation opens up the opportunity to envision a fully integrated electronic laboratory. However, the systems that we currently use in our laboratories are often a legacy of application-centric approaches that are based on the demands of specific laboratory technologies and are limited by integration difficulties, incompatible file formats, and other technological inconsistencies. This does not sit comfortably with the vision of a laboratory content management system in which data and information is seamlessly integrated, searched, and reused in intuitive ways.

The electronic laboratory notebook

The way in which laboratory notebooks are used is largely dictated by the United States patent system which, unlike the rest of the world, is based on ‘first to Invent’. The need to be able to demonstrate who really was the ‘first to invent’ requires the laboratory notebook to be an authentic and trustworthy record which describes the concept and its reduction to practice, which is then signed by the author and corroborated by an impartial witness. Probably the reason why migration away from paper laboratory notebooks has taken so long can be attributed to two factors:

  1. The reluctance of lawyers and patent attorneys to gamble on the legal acceptance of electronic records in patent interferences and patent litigation without any case law, and
  2. The lack of confidence in our ability to preserve electronic records over several decades.

However, any doubt about the admissibility of electronic records was largely removed by this well publicised statement from Bruce H. Stoner Jr., Chief Administrative Patent Judge in the Official Gazette (March 10 1998) (6):

“Admissibility of electronic records in interferences: Pursuant to 37 CFR 1.671, electronic records are admissible as evidence in interferences before the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences to the same extent that electronic records are admissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence. The weight to be given any particular record necessarily must be determined on a case-by-case basis.”

In other words, paper and electronic records are equivalent in terms of admissibility. So basically, it is the integrity, authenticity and trustworthiness of the record that is important, not the medium. It is important to understand the factors that impact upon the authenticity of electronic records and that in the adversarial nature of the courtroom, the opposing side will attempt to discredit the record, the record keeping system and the record keeping process. The integrity of the system, also the process used to create and preserve records are therefore paramount. The legal professions reluctance to move away from an established and trusted medium such as paper is understandable.

One of the more challenging barriers to a successful ELN implementation is identifying exactly what role the ELNs will play. The term ‘electronic laboratory notebook’ is inherently ambiguous. In most cases the implementation of an ELN is expected to do more than just replace the paper laboratory notebook. The paper laboratory notebook is a simple authoring tool and any electronic authoring tool capable of generating a compound document will serve as a replacement. For some companies this has proved to be the case. The combination of Microsoft Office©, SharePoint Services© and a means of preserving documents (e.g. in PDF – portable document format) has proved to be an adequate replacement for paper. However, if more functionality than this is needed, for example, integrating various chemistry or biology-centric functions, or other discipline specific tools, then we are really talking about an electronic laboratory rather than an electronic laboratory notebook.

Integration: the next challenge

If the ELN has been the missing link in the electronic laboratory portfolio, then the next challenge is integration. We are at a point where integration has largely been achieved by bolting together various disparate systems that meet specific functional requirements and which often end up as a group of interconnected silos. This has been an important ‘stepping stone’ that has often delivered significant productivity benefits, but at the cost of significant effort and with the worrying legacy of a custom solution. But to extract even more benefit, we must switch our attention away from the application-centric workflows and back to an integrated information ecology that is designed to fully support science. Providing scientists with good tools to enable them to create, process, store, find and search data and information at little or no cost to them in terms of their time and/or effort becomes increasingly important and as data repositories continue to grow, this will become a bigger challenge.

So, if we are at a point where we can seriously consider an all electronic laboratory; what are the hurdles we need to overcome? There are three specific issues: firstly, we need to migrate towards technologies that are designed with integration in mind; secondly, we need to overcome the problems of long-term data preservation, and thirdly, we need the right attitudes and behaviours to work in a fully electronic environment, while we are doing this, we also need to keep an eye on emerging technologies.

Technology

On the technology front, service oriented architectures and web services promise a great deal. The concept of loosely coupled-software services that separate the service from the content, that are not tied to a specific technology, are based on standards and are responsive to changing conditions and requirements suggest an integration nirvana, that would enable us with a few basic manipulations, to perform any function, with any data, to meet our scientific requirements. But the combination of hype and commercial interests place constraints of achieving this outcome, so we need to concentrate our attentions on more basic requirements in the meantime, until effective solutions are more readily available.

A specific barrier to progress has been the lack of good, open standards for scientific data. Although there are numerous initiatives, typically based around XML, widespread acceptance of these initiatives is limited. There are significant signs in a number of business areas that open standards are becoming the bedrock of integration and collaboration. The recent designation of Adobe’s PDF and PDF/A (an archive format of PDF) as ISO Standards (ISO 32000 and ISO 19005-1:2005 respectively)has been driven to some extent by the demands of government agencies wishing to make a wholesale move towards electronic records. In the world of science, we need to follow this lead and discourage the use of proprietary file formats, not only on the basis of restricting integration, but also in terms of long-term preservation.

Long-term data preservation

Replacing paper with electronic media presents a significant challenge to our ability to preserve data over the long-term. We are without doubt, one of the first generations whose legacy will be more than just physical artefacts. In so many walks of life, the written word will no longer be preserved on paper. This is an issue that every electronic records initiative has to face, regardless of scope or scale. Whether it is government records, medical records, scientific records or a personal collection of digital photographs, the problem is the same; what do we have to do to ensure that we can still access these records several decades from now? File formats, optical and magnetic media, application versions, operating systems and hardware all have an influence on our chosen approach. Choosing open sources and data formats has some important benefits that largely eliminate the concerns about file format, application and device, but would leave a question mark over the medium. In any case, managing records over the long-term will require considerable investment in time and resources in order to maintain concurrency and accessibility. Electronic records management will become an increasingly critical function for every organisation.

Technology trends

Technology development progresses at a relentless pace. From a standalone operation, we have steadily progressed towards networked environments that support communication through to the latest developments in web technology where the emphasis has changed from presentation to collaboration. Concurrent with this progress, we have seen the form factor of computers change from room sized mainframes to portable, lightweight devices.

If we step outside the laboratory for a moment and look at some of the developments in other domains, one of the most striking advances are occurring in the framework of collaboration and the role of Web 2.0. The use of social networking sites, primarily by the younger generation, has illustrated how technology can enhance collaboration. Okay, the content may be questionable at times, and the media are generally happy to highlight the negative aspects of these sites, but in essence, what has been achieved here is equivalent to the desired outcome of corporate knowledge management initiatives, connecting people with shared interests for the purpose of collaboration. Not surprisingly, the use of social networking tools in business is generating a lot of interest and many an interesting debate can be had around questions such as ‘‘can a blog be used as an electronic laboratory notebook?’’, or ‘‘could a Wiki be used as a laboratory content management system?’’

Web 2.0 is the generic term used to identify the fundamental change in the role of the internet as it becomes a collaboration space rather than just a presentation space. Web 3.0 promises even more in the sense that adding metadata, i.e. more meaning, to the data and information on the web, will enhance the machines understanding of the content and therefore take some of the burden of finding and filtering information away from users, a goal which if successful, promises further personal productivity gains.

In order to exploit such systems in a business environment, there is one major hurdle to overcome, and that is to a large extent determined by the use of the word ‘social’ as a descriptor. The take up of social networking tools outside of business is of course voluntary; to make these tools work effectively in a business situation, then if not compulsory, it is important that a critical mass of the workforce participates. Therefore, it comes down to issues of culture and technology adoption.

Another area of technology that has seen significant development is the user interface, probably sparked by the developments by Apple©, initially with the iPod©, and more recently by the iPhone©, the use of gesture/touch-based approaches to human interfaces have marked an increasing trend to make systems more intuitive and easier to navigate. Touch screens have been around for years, and are in common use for certain dedicated systems, particularly where a full keyboard is not required, but use of a gesture based approach is new. This technology lends itself more to smaller, handheld devices, and the ongoing trend towards portable, smaller but increasingly powerful devices is creating more opportunity to exploit opportunities for this type of intuitive interface. It does however leave the question of data entry unanswered.

Since the demise of punch cards, our means of manually entering data into a computer is via a keyboard, and to date, there have been no satisfactory alternatives. Small restrictive keyboards on mobile devices such as cell phones and PDAs are quite difficult to manipulate for anything other than rudimentary textual entry, and predictive text still falls a long way short of becoming a viable option in a business environment. It does, however, raise the question of whether voice input, either as the direct recording of narrative, or via voice recognition will advance to a point where the role of a keyboard on a mobile device is largely redundant? Furthermore, the catalyst for social networking has been the convergence of text, voice, images and video, all of which have significant potential within laboratory information management.

So what relevance do these developments have for the laboratory? One of the more basic elements of the ‘scientific method’ encompasses collaboration through debate and the sharing of information. LIMS and ELNs do this in a relatively formal and structured way; collaborative tools such as blogs and wikis do this in an informal and less structured way. LIMS and ELNs replace paper; blogs and wikis replace conversations. Nobody should want to replace conversations, but the nature of modern business, where the opportunities for conversations are restricted by time, availability or opportunity, these tools can fulfil a useful purpose.

With regard to portable devices, one of the objections often raised about the transition from paper to electronic laboratory notebooks is the loss of mobility. Paper notebooks are easily portable; electronic laboratory notebooks are usually implemented on a desk-bound PC. Although some companies have deployed clever workarounds to ensure access in the laboratory and the office, carrying your notebook with you is no longer a viable option unless you use a laptop, or tablet PC. At least one LIMS company is advertising the fact that their web-based system can be run in any browser, and illustrate the fact with screen shots of the system on a number of devices from the desktop to a mobile phone. Although this does raise other questions, mainly about security, there seems little doubt that where mobility and portability are important requirements, solutions are available.

Technology adoption

Technology adoption is often considered one of the most critical success factors of an IT project, and involving users, paying appropriate attention to their requirements and putting a strong emphasis on usefulness and ease-of-use will enhance the likelihood of success. Although the perception at the laboratory bench may, in some cases, be that computers come with steep learning curves and some degree of pain, when you look at the overall impact, there can be little doubt that they have contributed enormously to productivity and have helped meet important business objectives. There are signs that the user attitude towards ELNs has been far more positive than that experienced at an equivalent stage (about 10 years ago) with LIMS, based on information reported in case studies at ELN Conferences. LIMS are of course far more prescriptive in their design and operation. Also, the technologies available today are superior to those of 10 years ago and ease-of-use should be less of an issue. But there may also have been lessons learned from LIMS and other multi-user projects about adopting the right approach to help with user uptake. Nevertheless, there are still indications that those scientists in the more conservative domains are reluctant to part with the portability and convenience of paper. Concerns about user adoption can be reduced by carefully choosing the project team to ensure that these criteria are addressed, rather than just announcing a new system and the training course schedule. Typically, putting a strong emphasis on user requirements and user adoption by engaging users throughout the process tends to brand the implementation as a ‘laboratory’ project, rather than an ‘IT’ project, and this can often make it easier for scientists to accept the proposed change.

One particular aspect of technology adoption however, poses the question; ’’do our scientists have the necessary IT skills and knowledge to exploit the opportunities offered by a fully electronic environment?’’ We have assumed for years that each succeeding generation will arrive more ‘tech-savvy’ than it’s predecessors, but should we just rely on attrition to solve the problem? Too many scientists do not have a good enough background in information technology to be able to fully exploit the opportunities presented to them.

Conclusion

To say that we are at a critical point in the move towards a paperless laboratory may be overly dramatising the situation, but implementing an electronic laboratory notebook to replace traditional paper notebooks is actually removing the last road block on the way to a fully electronic laboratory. It is time to move on from a set of interconnected applications to an integrated laboratory information ecology that brings together technology, scientific skills and expertise. The opportunity is real, but there are still a number of challenges. Technology in itself is not a barrier; it is our vision that may be a limitation. Breaking the paradigm of an application-centric approach is a key requirement; social networking seems to be breaking that paradigm. The integration of text, voice and images (still and moving) has revolutionised communication and collaboration for a new generation and has shifted the focus on content; can we do the same for science?

John Trigg

Director, phaseFour Informatics

John Trigg is Director of phaseFour Informatics, a UK based consultancy specialising in the electronic laboratory notebook market. With over 20 years experience working in the field of research & development data, information and knowledge management, including 10 years experience of the worlds first enterprise level implementation of an electronic laboratory notebook in the Eastman Kodak Company. John is author of a number of publications on electronic laboratory notebooks and knowledge management in the laboratory. He has also presented papers and run workshops at conferences in the UK, Ireland, Germany, USA and Australia. He was the recipient of the 2000 International LIMS Award and is currently the Chairman of the Automation and Analytical Management Group of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

John Trigg is the author of a recently published short guidebook, entitled ‘Getting started with an Electronic Laboratory Notebook’ Visit www.scientific-computing.com/elnguide for more information.

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