From Individual to Collaborative: The Evolution of Prism, a Hybrid Laboratory Notebook


We report on our studies of the evolving work practices of biologists and the role paper

We report on our studies of the evolving work practices of biologists and the role paper and electronic lab notebooks play in supporting their individual and collaborative activity. We describe the participatory design and longitudinal field testing of Prism, a hybrid laboratory notebook that lets biologists capture, visualize and interact with cross-linked streams of physical and electronic data. We used Prism as a technology probe that users could adapt to integrate additional activity streams and share information from other biologists. Our key findings include the use of master notebooks, whether paper or electronic, which act as a reference point for handling and organizing the diverse strands of personal activity, and the importance of redundancy, which biologists use to make sense of their data. Prism provides a flexible, extensible tool that supports individual and collaborative reflection in creative work.

Author Keywords
Activity streams, Augmented Paper, E-science, Hybrid lab notebooks, Information management, Laboratory notebooks

ACM Classification Keywords
D.2.2 [Design Tools & Techniques]: User Interfaces. H.5.2 [User Interfaces]: Evaluation/methodology, User-centered design. H.3.3 [Information Search and Retrieval]: Information filtering. H.5.3 [Group and Organization Interfaces]: Computer-supported cooperative work

Advances in computer technology have transformed how biologists work. Wouters [32] describes the emergence of E-Science as the result of three major developments: “the large-scale sharing of computational resources, the provision of access to massive, distributed and heterogeneous datasets (…tera to petabytes), and the use of digital platforms for collaboration and communication”. It is now common for biologists to share their data and to communicate with researchers around the world, in a complex mix of competition and collaboration [14]. However, despite the undoubted advantages, the advent of networked computing has contributed greatly to biologists’ information overload [25]. As lead users [28] or ‘extreme knowledge workers’, they need more powerful tools to cope with their increasing quantities of data and communication.
Historically, biologists, like other scientists, relied upon a simple, but powerful tool for recording procedures, data and results: the laboratory notebook. Although usually viewed as the personal record of an individual scientist, lab notebooks are written to be read by others, imposing a corresponding discipline in the style and choice of what is recorded. Together with published articles, they still serve as a primary archival and communication medium for academic biologists [4]. As research activities move online, with more remote collaboration, biologists are under increasing pressure to use fully electronic notebooks. At the same time, paper laboratory notebooks fill unique needs, for legal, archival and ease of use reasons [16].
We are interested in rethinking the design of laboratory notebooks so as to take advantage of both formats. We are particularly interested in supporting two aspects of biologists’ work: creative generation of new hypotheses and experiments and making sense of the data, and collaborative verification, accountability and know-how sharing across local and remote teams.
This paper describes our work with biologists at the Institut Pasteur and at INRA. We examine how their work has changed, from primarily individual to increasingly collaborative, with a particular focus on the lab notebook and how it has evolved in the face of enormous change. We then describe Prism, a hybrid paper and electronic notebook created in collaboration with bioinformaticians and tested in their laboratory over a period of nine months. We present our findings and conclude with a discussion and directions for future research.

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