Can digital lab notebooks protect against fraud?

Even though I’ve left the lab a few years ago, I’m still interested in what goes on in labs. Perhaps even more than before, because I can now take a step back to think about things in a broader sense. Take lab notebooks, for example.

There was a news article in Nature this week about going digital in the lab. It inspired me to ask the readers of the Node (who are predominantly working scientists) whether they’d consider a digital lab notebook, and was surprised how popular it seems to be. Clearly, the past few years have made a big difference, tech-wise, because I think the answers would have looked very differently in 2008, when I last wrote in a lab notebook. Perhaps it’s an effect of the rise of tablets, which make technology far more portable and easier to handle in a lab where you walk around all day.
no room for digital lab notebooksMy paper-centric workspace in the lab, in 2005.

I’m happy to see technology and “wet lab” moving closer, but there are still some ingrained cultural differences between the two. There are a few interesting comments on the Nature piece that should definitely not be overlooked by eager tech companies ready to push for a more digital culture in the lab. For example, Cynthia Bristow’s comment about accountability is something that’s key to certain fields of research.

If you want an entertaining example of the role of handwritten notes in fraud detection, read the novel Intuition by Allegra Goodman. In more realistic, real life examples, some supervisors sign off lab notebooks by their lab members, and that is in fact why they have the notebooks – not just to keep track of things, but to account for their work. It shows years down the line – when you write the paper, or even after that – who made which notes on which date, and when the supervisor saw it.

Is there a control equivalent in digital lab notebooks that can check with absolute certainty which person made which notes and when they were approved? There might be, but I don’t see that emphasized as a key point of digital lab notebooks. The emphasis is always on ease of finding information, tracking projects, or planning experiments – but the tools are offered as a replacement for something of which one of the key functions is security and accountability. Are the next cases of lab fraud going to involve hacking into lab notebooks?





Eva Amsen is a writer, science communicator and blogger. She has been writing about science and scientists in art/culture/life since 2005, both on this blog and for other sites and publications. Portfolio | Twitter | Contact

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2 Responses

  1. Nicolas Fanget says:

    The new lab book technology would, I guess, reduce the risk of fraud. If your eNotebook is sync’ed automatically with, say, an institutional server that time- and MD5-stamps it, it would take a very talented hacker to tamper with it. Paper is easier to mess about with (my dog ate it…), and more importantly it is only as reliable as the people who have access to it, in most unis supervisors won’t read, check and sign every single page in every notebook of every student.
    The flip side is that paper is very resilient, we can still read Leonardo’s notebooks for example, whereas an electronic notebook could disappear for any number of reason. And even if the actual 0s and 1s are still here, the format will eventually be obsolete and impossible to read.

  2. Eva Amsen says:

    Indeed. That was another comment on the original article, that it’s pretty much impossible to open old electronic data. And who is to say that the “common formats” of today are still popular in a few decades? Part of my PhD data are lost forever even though I physically have them on a ZipDisk….