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Electronic Lab Notebooks Useful For Teaching, But Not Ready To Replace Paper

September 7, 2005
Duke University
Electronic laboratory notebooks can be a valuable part of a college science education but are not yet a substitute for traditional paper laboratory notebooks, according to a Duke University chemistry instructor.

DURHAM, N.C. -- Electronic laboratory notebooks can be a valuable partof a college science education but are not yet a substitute fortraditional paper laboratory notebooks, according to a Duke Universitychemistry instructor.

"The reason it is a big year for electronic laboratory notebooks isthat several of the major pharmaceutical companies are ready to providetheir scientists electronic laboratory notebooks," said Todd Woerner,who manages chemistry teaching laboratories at Duke. "So suddenlythey're a huge deal for universities."

However, he said, "It's advantageous at this point [forcollege chemistry instructors] not to make the jump completely toelectronic, because academia and industry research labs aren't thereyet either."

Woerner will speak at the latest national meeting of theAmerican Chemical Society at 2 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, Aug. 31,2005, in room 151B of the Washington D.C. Convention Center, during thesession on "Bridging the Gap from Paper to Electronic LaboratoryNotebooks."

According to Atrium Research, a scientific research consultingcompany, 12 percent of the potential market for electronic notebooksuses them, with the amount of money being spent on them increasing at30 percent per year. Most of the buyers are businesses, notuniversities.

"We're crossing over from what I call the 'earlier adopter'market to the 'pragmatic' market," said Michael Elliot, president ofAtrium Research.

Over the last four years, Woerner has integrated electroniclaboratory notebooks into three advanced undergraduate chemistrylaboratory courses at Duke, having received a grant from Duke's Centerfor Instructional Technology to start the program. Each semester, heestimates 25 chemistry students at Duke use the electronic notebooksinstead of paper ones.

Duke is "nearly unique" in using electronic notebooks forundergraduate chemistry education, according to Paul Kelter, directorof the International Center for First-Year Undergraduate ChemistryEducation. In a survey of the group's 150 members, he said noneindicated they use electronic notebooks (Duke is not a member).

The electronic notebooks Woerner uses are Microsoft Worddocuments created on computers already in place on laboratory benchesto record data from electronic sensors. Teaching laboratories, heacknowledged, can use such basic software for notebooks becauseundergraduate classes have different security and authenticity needsthan academic and corporate research laboratories, which needverifiable records for patents and publications.

Electronic notebooks have enhanced chemistry laboratorycourses, Woerner said, but have also created some pitfalls forstudents.

One success has come from the ability to require students tosubmit electronically their pre-lab write-ups 24 hours before coming toclass -- which is logistically difficult with paper notebooks.

"The teaching assistants can read the pre-labs and get someidea of what the students do understand about this experiment and whatthey don't understand," he said. "Then, when the TA comes in to give aten- or fifteen-minute briefing about the experiment, he or she cantailor it to the issues seen in the pre-labs."

Also, electronic lab notebooks can give students access totheir data outside the laboratory, since they can upload theirlaboratory notes to individual web pages in the Blackboard onlinecourse management system that Duke uses. Then, when students turn intheir work, the Blackboard system records the time of submission anddoes not allow the file to be altered, which helps minimizeopportunities for cheating.

There are two main drawbacks to using electronic notebooks,Woerner said. For some students, the convenience of insertingcomputer-generated data, graphs and charts directly into an electronicnotebook is outweighed by the difficulty of manipulating and formattingfiles. Also, students often prefer paper notebooks for writingequations and drawing diagrams, which can be difficult to produce in aword processor.

"Electronic notebooks haven't gotten yet to the point wherethey're easier for everybody," Woerner said. "But everybody lookinginto the future sees that this is where things will go and so it makessense to commit to doing it better."

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Duke University. "Electronic Lab Notebooks Useful For Teaching, But Not Ready To Replace Paper." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 September 2005. <>.
Duke University. (2005, September 7). Electronic Lab Notebooks Useful For Teaching, But Not Ready To Replace Paper. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 27, 2017 from
Duke University. "Electronic Lab Notebooks Useful For Teaching, But Not Ready To Replace Paper." ScienceDaily. (accessed April 27, 2017).