Previously I wrote about our move to electronic lab notebooks (ELNs). This post contains the technical details to understand how it works for us. You can even replicate our setup if you want to take the plunge.
Why go electronic?
Many reasons: I wanted to be able to quickly find information in our lab books. I wanted lab members to be able to share information more freely. I wanted to protect against loss of a notebook. I think switching to ELNs is inevitable and not only that I needed to do something about the paper notebooks: my group had amassed 100 in 10 years.
We took the plunge and went electronic. To recap, I decided to use WordPress as a platform for our ELN.
We had a Linux box on which I could install WordPress. This involved installing phpMyAdmin and registering a mySQL database and then starting up WordPress. If that sounds complicated, it really isn’t. I simply found a page on the web with step-by-step instructions for my box. You could run this on an old computer or even on a Raspberry Pi, it just has to be on a local network.
Next, I set myself up as admin and then created a user account for each person in the lab. Users can have different privileges. I set all people in the lab to Author. This means they can make, edit and delete posts. Being an Author is better than the other options (Contributor or Editor) which wouldn’t work for users to make entries, e.g. Contributors cannot upload images. Obviously authors being able to delete posts is not acceptable for an ELN, so I removed this capability with a plugin (see below).
I decided that we would all write in the same ELN. This makes searching the contents much easier for me, the PI. The people in the lab were a bit concerned about this because they were each used to having their own lab book. It would be possible to set up a separate ELN for each person but this would be too unwieldy for the PI, so I grouped everyone together. However, it doen’t feel like writing in a communal notebook because each Author of a post is identifiable and so it is possible to look at the ELN of just one user as a “virtual lab book”. To do this easily, you need a plugin (see below).
If we lost the WP installation it would be a disaster, so I setup a backup. This is done locally with a plugin (see below). Additionally, I set up an rsync routine from the box that goes off weekly to our main lab server. Our main lab server uses ZFS and is backed up to a further geographically distinct location. So this is pretty indestructible (if that statement is not tempting fate…). The box has a RAID6 array of disks but in the case of hardware failure plus corruption and complete loss of the array, we would lose one week of entries at most.
The one we liked was called gista. It looks really nice, like a github page. It is no longer maintained unfortunately. Many of the other themes we looked at have really big fonts for the posts, which gives a really bloggy look, but is not conducive to a ELN.
Two things needed tweaking for gitsta to be just right: I wanted the author name to be visible directly after the title and I didn’t want comments to show up. This meant editing the content.php file. Finally, the style.css file needs changing to have the word gista-child in the comments, to allow it to get dependencies from gitsta and to show up in your list of themes to select.
The editing is pretty easy, since there are lots of guides online for doing this. If you just want to download our edited version to try it, you can get it from here (I might make some more changes in the future). If you want to use it, just download it, rename the directory as gitsta-child and then place it in WordPress/wp-content/themes/ of your installation – it should be good to go!
As you saw above, I installed a few plugins which are essential for full functionality
- My Private Site – this plugin locks off the site so that only people with a login can access the site. Our ELN is secure – note that this is not a challenge to try to hack us – it sits inside our internal network and as such is not “on the internet”. Nonetheless, anyone with access to the network who could find the IP could potentially read our ELN. This plugin locks off access to everyone not in our lab.
- Authors Widget – this plugin allows the addition of a little menu to the sidebar (widget) allowing the selection of posts by one author. This allows us to switch between virtual labbooks for each lab member. Users can bookmark their own Author name so that they only see their labbook if they want.
- Capability Manager Enhanced – you can edit rights of each level of user or create new levels of user. I used this to remove the ability to delete posts.
- BackWPup – this allows the local backup of all WP content. It’s highly customisable and is recommended.
Other plugins which are non-essential-but-useful
- WP Statistics – this is a plugin that allows admin to see how many visits etc the ELN has had that day/week etc. This one works on a local installation like ours. Others will not work because they require the site to be on the internet.
- WP-Markdown – this allows you to write your posts in md. I like writing in md, nobody in my lab uses this function.
Gitsta wants to use gust rather than the native WP dashboard. But gust and md were too complicated for our needs, so I uninstalled gust.
Using the ELN
Lab members/users/authors make “posts” for each lab book entry. This means we have formalised how lab book entries are done. We already had a guide for best practice for labbook entries in our lab manual which translates wonderfully to the ELN. It’s nothing earth-shattering, just that each experiment has a title, aim, methods, results and conclusion (just like we were taught in school!). In a paper notebook this is actually difficult to do because our experiments run for days (sometimes weeks) and many experiments run simultaneously. This means you either have to budget pages in the notebook for each separate experiment, interleave entries (which is not very readable) or write up at the end (which is not best practice). With ELNs you just make one entry for each experiment and update all of them as you go along. Problem solved. Edits are possible and it is possible to see what changes have been made and it is even possible to roll back changes.
Posts are given a title. We have a system in the lab for initials plus numbers for each experiment. This is used for everything associated with that experiment, so the files are easy to find, the films can be located and databases can cross-reference. The ELN also allows us to add categories and tags. So we have wide ranging categories (these are set by admin) and tags which can be more granular. Each post created by an author is identifiable as such, even without the experiment code to the title. So it is possible to filter the view to see posts:
- by one lab member
- on Imaging (or whatever topic)
- by date or in a date range
Of course you can also search the whole ELN, which is the thing I need most of all because it gets difficult to remember who did what and when. Even lab members themselves don’t remember that they did an experiment two or more years previously! So this feature will be very useful in the future.
WordPress allows pictures to be uploaded and links to be added. Inserting images is easy to show examples of how an experiment went. For data that is captured digitally this is a case of uploading the file. For things that are printed out or are a physical thing, i.e. western films or gel doc pictures, we are currently taking a picture and adding these to the post. In theory we can add hard links to data on our server. This is certainly not allowed in many other ELNs for security reasons.
In many ways the ELN is no different to our existing lab books. Our ELN is not on the internet and as such is not accessible from home without VPN to the University. This is analogous to our current set up where the paper lab books have to stay in the lab and are not allowed to be taken home.
Finally, in response to a question on Twitter after the previous ELN post: how do we protect against manipulation? Well previously we followed best practice for paper books. We used hard bound books with numbered pages (ensuring pages couldn’t be removed), Tip-ex was not allowed, edits had to be done in a different colour pen and dated etc. I think the ELN is better in many ways. Posts cannot be deleted, edits are logged and timestamped. User permissions mean I know who has edited what and when. Obviously, as with paper books, if somebody is intent on deception, they can still falsify their own lab records in some way. In my opinion, the way to combat this is regular review of the primary data and also maintaining an environment where people don’t feel like they should deceive.
The post title is taken from “Notes To The Future” by Patti Smith , the version I have is recorded Live in St. Mark’s Church, NYC in 2002 from Land (1975-2002). I thought this was appropriate since a lab note book is essentially notes to your future self. ELNs are also the future of taking notes in the lab.