Data management advice in electronic lab notebook sciNote

How to Handle Loads of Old Data When Your Lab Needs a Fresh Start?

 5 min read

One thing no one likes to face is opening the closets. Not necessarily the physical closets, even though there are quite a few of them packed with document folders in every lab as well. There are loads of files that have to be kept in a physical and/or digital format to meet the recordkeeping requirements. Data that is never used and questionably organized.

In a perfect world the detailed records of every experiment performed would be kept, neatly organized and stacked away in a safe place for current and future generations to come and be able to go through the data and reproduce the results. But human nature is not consistent in this matter, especially when the workload is high and time is limited.

For example, if you need the results published by one of the ex-employees that seem just the thing relevant for your current research, you know that there are files somewhere, data analysis and raw results to be relied upon. Analyses were performed alongside and prior to the one in question. Details such as time, date, temperatures and other facts should be written somewhere. The lab notebook is in the closet. There are digital folders on the server. Versions and drafts. Some saved, some missing. In between the local computer died. The person moved to another lab, in another country. Today, with the available state-of-the-art software and hardware technology, it is the right time for improvement.


Starting fresh

Keep the old data as it is. In most cases there is nothing much you can do about it. Make sure all old digital data is backed up, archived, accessible to you if needed and regularly maintained. But from now on, start fresh.
The good news is that today, organization of entire data, team and project management has become easier than it ever was. Digital solutions can keep track of all aspects of work where human errors and inconsistency can take place – from detailed activity and time logs to document versioning and all data backup – and therefore take the huge load off our back.


If you want to start with a new system, be it an electronic lab notebook or even LIMS, take into account the following 5 steps:


1. Know your internal Rules and Policies
Define the exact way your institution should keep the specific data and for how long. What should be kept in a physical form and for how many years? Are you currently meeting the digital data keeping requirements? Is your digital data archived and easy to retrieve?

2. How often would you need to access the old data?
Can you define the data that is only kept and data that is still being used? Defining this part of the process can help you decide whether there will be any of the old data that needs to be entered into and taken into account when establishing the new system. Here, be as realistic and precise as possible, to avoid cluttering your fresh start with the files that could be safely archived and accessed every once in a while, if ever.

3. Define the information you need to record on a daily basis
Publications should stand upon the integrity, reproducibility and trustworthiness of the presented results. Minimize the possibility of a human error. The tools that can take that load off our back and take over the tasks that can be automated, such as detailed activity logs, dates, times and names of employees in the lab working on projects and much more. Define the exact information you need to record. If you know that it is important for you to know which lab member changed the version of the protocol, when and at what time, then it will be much easier for you to choose a new system afterwards, with functionalities that include all necessary records.

4. Who has the access to which data?
Earlier on, certain data used to be under lock and key. When it comes to digital data, limited access and private folders kicks in. Today, systems determine the permissions and roles of users i.e. members of the lab. This allows the PIs, lab managers and supervisors to have complete overview over the activities, experiments performed, results generated etc. It is important to define the exact data privacy measures that have to be taken in the lab, and check whether the new system can provide that.

5. Data Safety
There are a couple of things to consider when it comes to data safety within a system you are about to choose. First thing is that saving data has to be in line with the regulatory requirements of your institution or company. Think about the data privacy and whether certain data is highly confidential? Are you working in the laboratory that requires you to follow certain standards when managing your data? Are you allowed to use the digital cloud solutions in your lab? Are you allowed to use mobile devices in your lab to access data? These are the questions that determine what kind of software system would be suitable for you. Interesting thing is that cloud solutions are starting to take the lead in providing long term data safety. It is worth checking out.


To quote Jeremy Fox, a Professor at the University of Calgary, Dynamic Ecology Blog who said: “Your primary collaborator is yourself 6 months from now, and your past self doesn’t answer email.” So having that in mind, how is your current data management and recordkeeping system holding up? And if you are looking for a new system, it is good to keep in mind that the processes you will set up now represent your fresh start. New software solutions such as open source electronic lab notebooks are doing a great job at making data, project and team management easier than ever.


By Tea Pavlek, MSc



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