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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2018

There's an App for That

Electronic Research Notebooks: A Piece of the Research Data Management Puzzle

Kortney K. Rupp
Chemical Information Librarian and LBNL Liaison
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, California
Twitter: @ChemLibraryUCB

When we imagine scientists carrying out their work in a laboratory, we instinctively picture them with a lab coat and a notebook to scribble down their results and genius ideas. Paper-based notebooks have served as the foundational recordkeeping system used by researchers for centuries (Bird et al. 2013; Kihlén 2003). Until the early 21st century, experimental outputs were still predominantly in paper form. Server-based and network connections did not allow us to access stand-alone instruments. Over time, large-scale IT infrastructures have simplified the transfer of digital information across locations, to the point that now almost all experimental output is digital and in many cases instruments and data can be accessed remotely. With every advancement and new capability, another step of the research lifecycle has migrated to an entirely digital existence. In response, a variety of electronic research notebook (ERN) platforms have emerged to assist the shift. Yet in academic research, this transition has been met with resistance and wide-spread adoption remains ever elusive (Rubacha 2011).

As the chemical information librarian and liaison to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I spend a lot of time talking with my colleagues in Research Data Management (RDM) and scholarly communications about how we can best support researchers in not only adopting ERN platforms but also in maintaining them and using them effectively. While institutions determine which unit should be responsible for providing for financial support to these platforms, the topic I most frequently encounter is how to pay for the platform over time. To address this issue, we are currently focused on free or already purchased resources for the initial transition. Examples of software which our institution is currently using include Jupyter Notebooks, Microsoft OneNote, and Evernote.

Besides cost, other difficulties commonly encountered by researchers are:

In response, the Library, Research Data Management (RDM), and Berkeley Research Computing (BRC) have developed an interdisciplinary consultant-based strategy to address researcher needs in more complete and meaningful ways. Prior to this initiative, researchers were attempting to solve data management issues on their own. As a result, campus resources were inefficiently used and potentially unsafe environments existed for sensitive data. In 2013, the Library, Research IT, and Educational Technology Services examined services being offered by peers in the areas of high performance computing and research data management. The direct relationship between computational environments and research data management led to the establishment of campus-wide consulting services with an extensive network of campus partners including the D-Lab, Division of Data Science, and the Berkeley Institute of Data Science.

To respond efficiently to researchers' requests, RDM has created service areas with overlapping definitions so all appropriate parties are brought in to solve a range needs when they arise; some examples include active data, data transfer, and data preservation. When researchers contacts RDM, their information is funneled through a shared e-mail and delegated through a task management system. The researcher is assigned a ticket in the project management platform and a member of the consultant team reaches out for more information. Based on the collected information, a consultation is scheduled with the appropriate members to provide expertise to that researcher. Finally, the consultants determine other members of the network to involve when needed to solve any complex tasks that may occur throughout the process.

By combining the conversation regarding ERNs and best RDM practices, inefficiencies and impractical solutions can be avoided and a healthy RDM approach can be implemented and supported throughout the life of the project. The ERN platform serves as the recordkeeping system for researchers but without a properly developed and documented data management plan, the ERN cannot function to the best of its ability. Using RDM consulting services will help overburdened researchers by outlining a clear transition plan and establishing ownership within the research group. The special relationship with BRC also provides direct access to resources for developing customized solutions based on individual research needs. Additionally, we aim to cultivate opportunities to work with vendors and trial adoption in both laboratories and undergraduate courses, as Daureen Nesdill has done with Lab Archives at the University of Utah (Nesdill 2018), but without initially providing a costly institution-wide subscription. If an institution does license an ERN platform, the vendor must be willing to provide ongoing support and well-resourced implementation strategies so wide-spread adoption is more likely to be successful.

While the new team-based strategy is being implemented, I have created an ERN topic guide which includes links to many types of notebook platforms, how to evaluate ERN platforms, how to transition, and other important digital recordkeeping tools and practices.

The future of RDM and ERNs is bright. Partnerships between IT departments and libraries make these units well suited to address the difficulties faced by researchers when shifting steps on the research lifecycle from paper based to digital.


Bird, C.L. & Frey, J.G. 2013. Chemical information matters: an e-research perspective on information and data sharing in the chemical sciences. Chemical Society Reviews 42(16), 6754-6776. DOI: 10.1039/C3CS60050E

Kihlén, M. & Waligorski, M. 2003. Electronic lab notebooks - a crossroads is passed. Drug Discovery Today 8(22), 1007-1009. DOI: 10.1016/S1359-6446(03)02887-3

Nesdill, D. 2018. Introducing LabArchives to the University of Utah. [cited 2018 May 8]. Available from:

Rubacha, M., Rattan, A.K. & Hosselet, S.C. 2011. A review of electronic laboratory notebooks available in the market today. Journal of the Association for Laboratory Automation 16(1), 90-98. DOI: 10.1016/j.jala.2009.01.002

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