Cavemen (Life archives)A couple of years ago I published a paper characterizing a mutant cell line. 1  I had been working, on and off, on the cells for around ten years, and they were already present in the lab when I joined it.  To write the paper I needed to know the details of their generation.  I clambered the ladder to the box marked “1992 LAB BOOKS”, pulled out Ethan’s notes for the year, flipped through them for a few minutes, and copied down the procedure — concentration of EMS, duration of treatment, and so on.  

Since 1992 I’ve used electronic data stored on 5¼-inch floppies, 3½-inch floppies (single and double-sided), Bernoulli drives, zip drives, Jazz drives, CDs, DVDs, and USB flash sticks; as well as on computer hard drives from at least four different OSes, and in God knows how many formats.  

The data on at least five of those media are now almost entirely inaccessible to me (if we were desperate, I’m fairly sure we could retrieve them, but it would be a huge chore).  Probably more than half of the different formats are almost unreadable today.  

Meanwhile, the data in those old-fashioned paper notebook are just as usable today as they were in 1992; and they will be equally usable in another sixteen years.   

I’m seeing a lot of discussion online about electronic lab notebooks, but this is an aspect that I don’t think has been emphasized nearly enough.  I know when you plan an experiment, you expect to publish it (in Nature) next week; but that’s not what always happens, is it.  And even if you do publish in a timely manner, who know what’s going to happen in fifteen years?  (I just thawed out some cells, frozen by a colleague in 1985, to analyze their antigen presentation pathways; something he had no interest in at the time.  He still has his lab notebooks describing his characterization, though, including stuff he didn’t publish at the time.)

Searchable experiments
A crude searchable experiments interface

How many of the protocols out there today are going to be functional in 15 years?  How many web sites from 1992 are still readable today?  (Since HTML wasn’t specified until 1993, the answer is “Not many”.)  History suggests that those electronic notebooks of today will be the impenetrable floppy disks of tomorrow. 2

Electronic notebooks do have one gigantic advantage over paper: Search.  I do use electronic notebooks of one kind or another, and the main reason is so I can search for the half-remembered experiment that used brefeldin A, and find out what concentration.  For years I’ve just used a cobbled-together thing I wrote myself, a HTML interface to an SQLite database linked with a Python cgi script (e.g. the screenshot to the right; click for a larger version).  It works nicely for searching, but it’s not as future-proof as I’d like (it depends on Python, which is being updated to a partially incompatible version soon; SQLite, which is likely to be stable for a few years, but I’m not counting on fifteen; and html, which is evolving as well.)  As well, it’s a little irritating to not have real data in there; so in the past year or so I’ve started using a wiki to keep lab notes in as well.  

I’ve actually made multiple false starts at the wiki/notebook thing, and there’s no guarantee that this latest version will stick, but it’s looking more promising than previous runs.  I’m using DokuWiki, which uses flat text (marked up) files for each page. I trust txt to be readable in 10 or 15 years, so even if (when) the rest of the interface is incompatible there should be usable information there.  It’s also easy to back up, and the wiki in general seems friskier and more responsive than some of the other wikis I’ve looked at.  I’m reasonably sure this will work.

But I’m still backing up to a paper lab notebook, because I know that works.

  1. York IA, Grant EP, Dahl AM, Rock KL (2005). A mutant cell with a novel defect in MHC class I quality control. J Immunol 174:6839–6846. []
  2. Note that I haven’t looked in any detail at the electronic notebooks of today, and really have no idea how future-proof they are.  This is just my prejudice.[]