Tuesday, 3 April 2018

New age, new tools: Online Research Notebook (Michele Hosking)

In a world that’s becoming increasingly digital and connected, there are still little analog pockets, spaces where old school is still the school. For many researchers, one of those pockets contains a notebook in which they record their thoughts, observations, and ideas.

These notebooks are the most inspired output produced by a researcher, the very essence of their theories and analyses.

Posterity highly prizes such artefacts.

The 7,000 extant pages of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, known as the Codex Arundel, have been described as “the living record of a universal mind” (Jonathan Jones on art).

By Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A large collection of Isaac Newton’s papers is held in the Cambridge Digital Library, including his “Waste Book”, in which he developed his seminal work on calculus.

Historians of ancient Rome rejoice in the insightful works of Cicero, Julius Caesar and many other commentators of the Republic.

That such priceless, fragile records have survived through the ages is fortunate indeed. We can only imagine the insights we might have gleaned from the notes of Socrates, for example.

While most researchers would not claim to be the next da Vinci or Newton, they too are producing valuable information in their notebooks.

Increasingly, they are also producing digital data, whether from scientific instruments and sensors, data analysis or imaging equipment. So, there’s a format-dictated disconnect between the contents of the paper notebook and the digital raw data.

In an effort to resolve that, researchers may resort to the labour-intensive practice of making paper copies of at least some of their digital data and attaching the printouts to their notebook. As for collaborating with colleagues, forget it! Paper notebooks aren’t shareable; they’re not even searchable. For contemporary researchers, it’s time to think beyond paper. We need find a solution that is durable, shareable and easily connectable to all research data.

Individual researchers at La Trobe have tried various digital notebook solutions, from Microsoft’s EndNote to commercial, cloud-based electronic lab notebook products. La Trobe's now making a digital research notebook application available to all its researchers free of charge (including Honours students and graduate researchers). The Online Research Notebook is a University-approved solution that stores your digital notebook securely and enables you to attach or connect to all your digital research data, wherever it is located.

The Online Research Notebook is a tool that researchers from any discipline can use with confidence. It’s securely hosted in the Cloud – with the data centres based in Australia. All data is encrypted when it’s transmitted and stored.

If you’re a scientific researcher, you’re probably well aware that having a full revision history for your notebook is vital for the protection of your intellectual property. While this was achieved for paper notebooks by having your lab head or supervisor physically sign each page, the Online Research Notebook has an inbuilt date and time stamp and electronic signature capability.

Over 70 La Trobe researchers participated in a trial of the Online Research Notebook in 2017.

Here are some of the things they liked about it:
“It's easy to use and less time consuming than a traditional lab book to record experiments.” 
“Easy to search for data using keywords rather than flicking through physical lab book.” 
“The fact that I can share data remotely with my supervisor, that my lab notebook is searchable to quickly find my content, that I can easily copy and paste past experiment protocols, that I'm saving time from printing, cutting and pasting my data results into a physical notebook and that I can share pages from my notebook with other lab members.” 
“I could upload all my experiment details and can be assessed everywhere as long as there is an internet connection.”
Here's more information about the Online Research Notebook. If you’re keen to get started, contact orn@latrobe.edu.au to arrange training and discuss your needs.

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Michele Hosking is the Lead Business Analyst for La Trobe’s Enterprise Research Data Management System Project, which seeks to identify and implement tools and services to assist La Trobe researchers with management of their research data. 

She previously worked at University of New England as Digital Infrastructure and Information Technologies Manager for the University Library. 

Michele has many years’ experience in analysis and implementation of information systems, in academic and research environments and in the corporate sphere.

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