It's a virtuous cycle: Science enables new technology, which then facilitates new science. The result is a society—and laboratories—that scarcely resemble those from only a few years ago.
Possibly, keeping a lab notebook is such a low-level function that it has managed to avoid many scientists' critical gaze.
But some would argue that one kind of technology has had less impact on academic laboratories than it should have: communications technology. The Internet, the World Wide Web, smartphones, and social networks have transformed culture. In the laboratory, scientists perform cutting-edge experiments on highly automated instruments—but then record the results with paper and pen, or print them and paste them in old-fashioned lab notebooks with a glue stick. When it comes time to disseminate their results, or to document a protocol, few point an iPhone at a grad student and take a video of them performing the task; instead, most scientists still sit down at the computer and start typing.
Why are academic scientists, who are technology-savvy in other ways, so slow to embrace new technologies in the lab? Maybe it's because deep down scientists are a conservative bunch, slow to abandon the ways of working that they're accustomed to. Another factor could be tight budgets and busy schedules, which may make scientists more cautious about change. Possibly, keeping a lab notebook is such a low-level function that it has managed to avoid many scientists' critical gaze.
That's too bad because communications technologies have much to offer scientists, especially those who perform experiments. Electronic lab notebooks can be seen and accessed from several places at once, accommodate large data sets, provide redundancy (i.e., backups) in case disaster strikes, and make it far easier to find what you're looking for in your laboratory's record than paging through 60 paperbound volumes. As for video, one video record can catch nuances of a laboratory procedure that cannot easily be written down or that can be overlooked by a reader trying to translate sentences into concrete steps. And one videotaped tutorial can be used many times to train new scientists—all over the world, if desired.
In "Must a Paper Trail Be Paper?," Siri Carpenter writes about some of the technologies available for keeping lab notebooks and why some people are using them—and others aren't.
In "YouTube at the Bench," Vijaysree Venkatraman considers the role video is playing in a handful of laboratories—and could play in many others.
Jim Austin is the editor of Science Careers.