Bio Goes Digital (?)


Digital data is in every lab

Literally every bioscience lab is now generating experimental results in digital format. Probe detection now uses highly sensitive digital cameras instead of photo paper. Digital video recordings can span days or weeks with no limitation on duration. Genomics and proteomics generate vast amounts of digital data. And all these experimental data are mined and analyzed in software that gives a depth of insight never before available.

Image source: Lolostock/

Paper plus digital - A recipe for failure?

Many scientists struggle every day to combine digital data with paper lab notebooks in a hybrid, analog-digital approach. Printing, cutting, and pasting into lab books might be a coping mechanism for some, but as digital data have become more complicated and larger in size, this is rarely an adequate mid-term solution.
As a result, external hard drives, writable optical discs, and USB flash drives containing valuable information are scattered all over the lab. The stored information can easily disappear after some time due to aging effects of the data medium or simply got lost. Digital data saved on various media in the lab is simply not safe.

Image source: Fekete Tibor/

To enable higher data safety, data on these media should be copied in three-year cycles onto new media types. Furthermore, at least one copy should be stored at a geographically separated location to ensure protection in the event of fire or theft. Such an approach is both risky and inconvenient. Finding the results of a specific experiment and all its associated details on scattered media and hardcopy records could take many hours of work with no guarantee of success. Even if you do find the specific details, it remains nearly impossible to compile a report of similar experiments both efficiently and exhaustively, causing precious information to be lost.

Pure digital - Solving existing problems and providing new flexibility
If data are stored in a digital way by using information management systems, searches and queries are only a few clicks away. More important, the data are securely stored in dedicated datacenters. These data centers are, by design, resilient against failure of data carriers and services.

Image source: mstanley/

Being afraid of losing the flexibility and convenience of pen and paper, some scientists still avoid moving towards a digital system. Why is that? The first steps, the first days and even weeks will be challenging, similar to personal changes like switching your mobile from iOS to Android or vice versa. But then you will get used to a data platform that fully integrates an Electronic Lab Notebook with Protocol Management and Sample Management Software. You benefit from planning and documenting a complete experiment within seconds. For flexible usage, lab software uses adjustable templates that take into account the association and organization of the samples in the freezer with the data that is being generated. Laborious, detailed (re)writing of protocols is no longer necessary, and anything that needs to be known is instantly available.
Scientists who record experiments digitally spend less time writing and more time analyzing results. The software can automatically control and integrate data readings from lab equipment, which improves the quality and reproducibility of experiments by minimizing human error and variability. And importantly, data can be found, extracted, and compiled in any form for further downstream applications.

Making all digital work
The question is not whether all bioscience labs will go entirely digital, but when and how. The benefits are clear. Labs that compete for funding in academia or support innovation in business, and continue to use hybrid analogue and digital systems will fall back. They will face growing challenges to attract the best scientists for their teams.
Still, the shift to all digital systems requires careful planning and should preferably be assisted by life science experts who have thorough understanding of the software. Many systems are highly configurable and can adapt to any type of laboratory. Bad decisions in the beginning will result in great pain later. Keep in mind - you don’t need to know what type of data you will store in future. This can be adjusted and evolve with the lab itself. What you do need to anticipate is the kind of questions that you will ask the system. What kind of reports you want to receive. Sitting down with your colleagues and making a solid plan first will cause the difference. Take advantage of expert consultancy services, well-tried across many labs, that can aid you within this process.