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.
My 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?