Structuring your notebook

One of the best things about an ELN is its flexibility – you have the option to set up your new digital workspace in any way you choose. However, too much choice can also be confusing!

Here are some tips to help you structure your notebook to easily keep track of your team, experiments and data.

Set yourself up first

If you’re the lab head, principal or chief investigator you can set up all of your notebooks and folders for your lab, then share your notebooks with your researchers.

By spending a little time setting up your online workspace and working out who will have access to which notebook(s) before you turn your researchers loose in their new digital environment, you will save hours of searching and wrangling later.

Structure notebooks and top level folders around your research questions or themes

It’s a good idea to structure your lab notebooks around your research groups’ research projects, questions or themes, rather than giving an individual notebook space to each lab user (eg. “Kate’s notebook”). Remember, you can share any notebook with as many users as you like – including your entire research team.

The benefits of doing this include:

  • A sense of group ownership of the entire project and its aims, rather than individual ownership of each sub-project and dataset.
  • There can be general lab notebooks with standard operating procedures (SOPs), WHS information (risk assessments; MSDS; equipment instructions) or reagent recipes. You can also have general lab notebooks for experiments that benefit everyone eg. technique or assay optimization, testing primers in different tissues or species; processing and storing of samples that everyone will use. This will prevent researchers repeating experiments that someone else has already done.
  • You can give consistent, descriptive names to your folders, making it easier to find and organize your data further down the track.
  • Experiments done by different researchers working on the same project or experiment will be held in that project notebook – rather than being fragmented across multiple researchers’ individual notebooks.

Think about naming conventions

Consider adopting a naming convention for folders and notebook pages for your whole lab. For example:

  • Userinitials-YYYY-Projectname (convention for notebook title)
  • LabName-Experiment#-Name-UserInitials-YYYYMMDD (convention for notebook pages)
    * ChemLab1-Synthesis-of-PZQ-Reagent1-KVS-20140218
    * MetabolicLab-modification-of-fat-cells-gene-expressionFatcells34-GD-20140214
    * BoneLab-STX23-MMS-20140207

Again, adopting a meaningful convention – any descriptive convention - will make it much easier to find and search your data later on. If you give your pages and folders generic names that don’t provide a context eg. "experiment1" , "raw data" , "cell culture" it will be almost impossible to see which page relates to which experiment without checking every page.

Naming conventions can also be used for attached files. Eg. STX23-RNA.xlsx or STX23-COL1A1.rex; STX23-OsteoCellsDay3x200.jpg. Then, when you or your team search for a result, it is obvious where the file belongs.

Pay attention to how you lay out your notebook pages

You can create each notebook page in sections – this will enable you to isolate and reuse selected sections in future experiments (eg. aim, experiment protocol, raw data, results, discussion, conclusion, future work), and create experiment templates for your team to use.

You can set up templates including all the sections you want your researchers to cover in each experiment, and share them with your lab team.

Each experiment should be recorded so it can stand alone

Each experiment should be recorded in such a way that it stands alone, without having to go and look up data in other notebooks and sources. Separating aims, methods, data and conclusions into separate notebooks may cause you data retrieval headaches when you come to write up your data.

The goal is to be able to share the link to a single experiment page with any scientist and have them understand it from start to finish, and be able to repeat your experiment step-by-step.

Oversee your team! Use the dashboard functionality to monitor your lab's activity

Once you have given researchers access to your lab notebooks, you can use the dashboard to monitor their activity. You will be able to see who is using the notebooks and regularly uploading and recording data. Some researchers (new and experienced) may require assistance with timeliness, consistency and completeness.

You can also use the Activity Feed to sort feed types (account, notebook, user, notifications) and filters for each feed type. This provides rich and specific details on usage, while enabling you to see and go to the entries listed.

Within a researcher’s notebooks, you, as a principal investigator, can make suggestions for extra information, eg. ideas for further experiments, recalculations, more images, acknowledgement of novel results, requests for interpretations or visualization of data (graphs and figures) and how their results agree or disagree with the published literature. The notebook thus contains more of the information required for easy publication.