Introducing Cerys Willoughby
Author of Recording Science in the Digital Era
Tell us about your book
For most of the history of scientific endeavour, science has been recorded on paper. In this digital era, however, there is increasing pressure to abandon paper in favour of digital tools. This book examines the importance of record-keeping in science, current record-keeping practices, and the role of technology for enabling the effective capture, storage, sharing, and preservation of scientific data. It focuses on the roles and design of Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELNs) and data management systems in particular, including an in-depth discussion of the barriers and potential pitfalls of these technologies together with some best practices for overcoming them.
What do you think will be the next big breakthrough in your subject area?
Personally, I think being able to use digital tools in a more naturalistic way will help to encourage adoption. Writing and drawing in a notebook is very easy and natural, but recording on a computer is harder. Now we are beginning to get interfaces, that allow detailed writing and drawing. Future developments could enable the user to talk directly to the ELN to call up previous results or to dictate observations and measurements during an experiment. Another area where I think important developments will be made is in the interaction between ELNs and other systems. I think there is huge value to be gained by enabling users to click a button that automatically packages and uploads all the appropriate data, metadata, and documentation for a research project directly to a repository or publisher.
What is the current take up of ELN and how has it been received?
The take up of ELNs is variable across different sectors. Although ELNs are widely used in industry, they are by no means ubiquitous. Within academia there is a lot of interest in implementing ELNs, but most researchers are still recording their research using paper notebooks. There are a number of challenges with ELNs, common concerns are the cost of licenses, issues around where the data is stored for privacy and security reasons, and the usability of the software itself. In my experience, users who collaborate in their research are most positive, but other users only become positive once they use them and see the benefits of being able to easily organise and access their research.
Looking back what is the biggest development in your area of research?
There has been gradual progress over a long period of time, but I think the most significant is probably the development of web-based ELNs, particularly those using the Cloud. Although these are not suitable for all organisations, they are useful for individuals, small teams, and those wanting to try out ELNs. Many of the online ELNs are free to use or have a free trial option. The majority are quite generic, and can potentially be used by any discipline, overcoming the inflexibility of some of the more complex ELNs available. The generic design also means they tend to be relatively easy to use. Having the content accessible from anywhere, including on mobile, also provides the flexibility to create content without being tied to a particular machine that has an appropriate license.