It shouldn’t happen to a researcher: top 6 lab book disasters

What can go wrong with paper lab notebooks – and how Hivebench can prevent these problems

lab book on fire

In the lab, there’s a lot to keep track of. Every day, you have to record your experiments and their results, keeping note of what reagents you use, what worked and what failed. When I was a PhD student in a molecular biology lab, and later as a researcher at private biopharma companies, I saw first-hand how important the lab notebook was for recording what happens.

But I also saw plenty of problems – even disasters – that cost researchers data, time and money. After training as a computer scientist and leaving the lab seven years ago, I decided to connect both worlds and develop a solution to some of the problems I was seeing. The result was Hivebench — an electronic lab notebook that helps researchers plan their work, record results and share data.

Now as part of Elsevier, we are partnering with institutes to listen to their frustrations and get their feedback so we can try to solve their problems in a clever, user-friendly way. Distilling their stories, and my own, I’m sharing six of the most common lab book disasters – and how we’re working to prevent them.

1. Losing your lab notebook in a fire

Twice, I’ve met researchers who lost data in lab fires – and I’m not alone. In April this year, there was a fire at the University of Manchester in the UK. When this happens, everything on paper is destroyed, resulting in a huge loss of data and other information. It’s difficult to assess the financial impact of lost data and time on top of the material losses, but the impact is significant.

If you use something like Hivebench, which is available in the cloud, instead of a paper notebook, you will store, secure and protect your research findings, which means you can start your research again more quickly and easily after a fire or other disaster.

2. No lab notebook at all

Taking notes is part of doing research, but paper notebooks are a pain. It takes a long time to write out step-by-step procedures in a notebook. If your experiment fails, it’s frustrating to say you spent this long getting results and then had to spend another hour writing that you failed. It’s so irritating that a lot of people don’t use a lab book at all.

But if you don’t write the information down, your colleagues could repeat your mistakes a few months later. The Hivebench iPad app lets you select a protocol for your experiment, follow it at the bench, photograph the results and save your notes in real time. This lets you record more detail about the experiment in less time, and it’s possible for the lab manager and your colleagues to read the results too.

3. Searching for results left behind

At the end of a PhD, a student sends their work for publication and moves on to another job in a different lab. If the reviewers request more data, this can be challenging. Someone in your old lab could try to find these results, but they would need access to the previous experiments in the lab notebooks. It can take them hours, if not days, to find and understand what you did.

In Hivebench, you can carry out a full-text search using any term to filter through experiments and results. Very often the human brain better remembers results based on an image – I might remember a green cell with some red dots in the nucleus, but not when or how the experiment was done. Using Hivebench, you can search for an image and click through to its related procedure, the list of reagents and all the results.

4. Losing data files

If you’re analyzing DNA sequences or taking pictures of cells, for example, you produce huge data files that you might be storing on various computers and servers, while still using a paper lab book. You note down that the data file associated with your experiment is stored on server X. But what if two years later server X has changed to server Y and you can’t find the data?

Hivebench stores everything on the same platform. You add data files to the experiments and they are stored in the same place, making them accessible ten years later and beyond. For the very large files, we’re working with the Mendeley Data repository, which ensures long term storage of datasets.

5. Information in multiple locations

I used to take notes in my personal lab book but also in a team notebook. Researchers who work in multiple locations might have a different lab book at each bench and results stored on various computers and servers. To use a result from a machine, you would save it to a drive, go to the lab, download it and write notes in the book.

It’s much easier to have a tool that is the same wherever you access it. Hivebench is available everywhere and syncs from the web, desktop, iPad and iPhone, so when you get results from a piece of equipment in one lab, they can be available instantly in another. You can also personalize access to different experiments, making the data available to your colleagues and lab manager.

6. No more reagents!

One of the most frustrating things in the lab is to get to a certain point in your experiment only to find the reagent you need has run out, or is missing.

I was keen to solve this problem, so we developed inventories and reagents features in Hivebench. This means you can check your iPhone app to find the reagent you need – you can see its location down to the room, fridge, drawer and even box – without having to head back to your desk and open a spreadsheet. It notices when the stock is depleted, and you can hit a button to email a colleague asking for a reorder. For the lab manager, this helps them keep track of the reagents being used and the budget.


Hivebench screenshot

Hivebench is an easy-to-use electronic lab notebook (ELN) built by life scientists who understand the field’s workflows and pain points. Whatever your role in the lab – researcher, PI, lab manager – Hivebench’s comprehensive, consistent and structured data capture provides a simple and safe way to manage and preserve protocols and research data. Learn more.


Written by

Julien Thérier, PhD

Written by

Julien Thérier, PhD

Dr. Julien Thérier is Software Engineering Lead at Elsevier. He founded Shazino in 2011 to develop apps dedicated to research: Hivebench (acquired by Elsevier in 2016), PaperShip, SciKey have been downloaded by tens of thousands of scientists worldwide. Julien is also a contributor to the open-source framework ResearchKit, supported by Apple, and developed the clinical study app Neurons. He has a PhD in molecular and cellular biology and master’s degree in computer science and business.


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