DaveLunt.net - Dr Dave Lunt | A question about my use of ELNs
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A question about my use of ELNs

A question about my use of ELNs

I received an email from Alex Lang and he asked about my current use of Electronic Lab Notebooks

Hi Dave,

I’m a physics graduate student who just started using a WordPress based ELN. I really found your thoughts on ELNs helpful, especially:
http://www.davelunt.net/evophylo/2009/03/wordpress-as-eln/
https://speakerdeck.com/davelunt/electronic-lab-notebooks-for-ug-students

Since someday I want to be a PI, I had some questions for you. If you would prefer to answer as a blog post, that would be fine by me.

I wondering if you could elaborate more on the mechanics of how you actually implement ELNs with your students. For example, some questions I had are:

Do students have an ELN on your website? Or do they host their own?
What happens when students leave the group? How do you keep a record of the ELN?
Does the whole lab share ELNs with each other? Or do you restrict it to you seeing students ELNs?
Do you ever share parts of the ELN with collaborators / outside people? Does that work out?

Thanks again for the insight into ELNs!

Alex

Hi Alex, thanks for the prompt to write something

Even though it was quite a while ago that I wrote my posts about ELNs most of it still holds for me. The post you link to above was talking about graduate students and postdocs, whereas the slides refer to undergraduates doing a short project but actually both are implemented in a similar way.

Do students have an ELN on your website? Or do they host their own?
What happens when students leave the group? How do you keep a record of the ELN?

I can answer these two together. I set up a blog ELN for all, and nobody sets up their own. Two reasons for this: Firstly, setting up a blog can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before, as many starting an ELN have not. Secondly, the blog is owned by me and can’t easily be deleted. This ensures I always have the experimental record even if researchers leave. I think this is important. Of course the researcher has admin rights and can always save a copy when they leave and take it with them, but I always retain the ELN record.

I host all ELNs on WordPress.com. The reason is that I trust them more than I trust my personal domain. You will have a reduced list of themes and plugins that can be used, but it is fast and robust.

Does the whole lab share ELNs with each other? Or do you restrict it to you seeing students ELNs?

Actually, only the project supervisor (me) usually sees the ELN. This is not really a decision, just how it worked out. I would be happy to let anyone in the lab see, and the people writing the ELN probably wouldn’t mind either, but nobody really wants to read the experimental minutiae apparently. We have regular lab meetings and this provides all the details most people want. Sometimes I will add a postdoc and a PhD student onto each other’s ELN if they are on similar projects, but generally people are happy without seeing details. In some ways I think this is a shame, we can all learn something from seeing how others do science and write up the record. I may try to change that and put everyone on every ELN by default.

Do you ever share parts of the ELN with collaborators / outside people? Does that work out?

I have shared an ELN with another co-I on a grant. It worked well, though it was not a major source of info for them (I don’t really know how often they read it). They preferred meetings where the researcher would summarise and discuss rather than reading the experimental record (which is sometimes a bit dry). Other co-Is have not really wanted to even see the ELN. I however quite enjoy enjoy browsing new work by my people and I am excited when I get a new post notification!

This brings me to something I hadn’t really thought much about before. Use of ELNs is not primarily a technology issue, it is a personality issue. If you don’t want to read a paper notebook, you won’t want to read an electronic one. Even if you don’t want to read other ELNs you should still keep one yourself:

  • It will help you in writing your manuscript. Some descriptions and methods will already have been written and only require copy/paste. I recently saw an excellent ELN post by my postdoc Amir that was a manuscript draft. Just explaining in the ELN what had been done and what conclusions could be drawn had created that first manuscript version.
  • It is more robust. Your leaking ice bucket cannot ruin the whole year’s experimental record. There is version control. It is backed up in the cloud and if you are wise it has a regularly saved local copy too.
  • The features of a WordPress ELN make it powerful. Search, tags, and categories make my day much easier and more productive.
  • I think it is just easier to keep information this way; easier to paste in text, and screenshots, and protocols, and web links. Even for people working at the bench rather than the computer I think it is easier.

My personal ELN is still very successful I think. I don’t research every day which makes the search function vital. I have had some minor failures but it is the best experimental record I have ever kept. My failures have taught me about the value of records with lots of searchable tags, the importance of explicit data file versions, and never to scribble something to ‘type up later’. The times the ELN gets flaky is when I’m too impatient and do the next thing before really creating a record for the last.

I have 2 students starting later this month, and I will set up a WordPress blog ELN for each. If anyone would like to add their views and experiences please leave comments, or email me.

 



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