Managing Your Lab's Data

If you run a lab, you will generate data. This is a simple truth of working in a laboratory system. Unless you’re doing nothing at all, you will probably generate samples, perform tests, and create reports. This data is used to extrapolate important information. It can be anything from genetic testing to determining proper paint shade, but this information will be important to your lab and your clients.

There are plenty of reasonable fears and apprehensions about data: what do I do with it? What happens if it’s lost? How should I store it? Within this article, we’ll discuss how to take charge of your data and some different ways that laboratories store and track it. We’ll also discuss some positives and negatives of these methods of storage. In this series, we’ll discuss all this and LIMS: what they are, what they mean for you, and how long it might take to start using one. Stay tuned for more articles!

When a lab produces data, there are often regulations and rules regarding how to keep the data, store the data, and so on. Data loss is a fear that many laboratories have, with good reason. When it happens, there can be trouble not only internally (from technicians uncertain of where information from a performed test has gone), but externally (from customers or audits from major entities). Data loss can be even more frightening if it could result in a fine as would be the case in a healthcare breach. But for some labs, the prospect of losing data is scarier than storing it. How can your data be kept safe? How does a lab director choose the best way to keep track of all this information?

Some labs prefer the old fashioned way of paper notebooks and pen and paper worksheets. Others find that the speed of electronic storage to be the smartest approach. Every lab director finds themselves faced with this question at one point or another: how will our lab store its data?

Some labs still use the tried-and-true method of physical laboratory notebooks. Using a physical lab notebook has its benefits: many lab technicians can use it, so long as they can write. It’s easy to open a lab notebook and write data down and doesn’t require working in several programs. When you have one person working on one project, if something seems incorrect then the lab manager can ask what happened rather than the anonymity of electronic methods (if there’s no verification of the recorder’s identity, such as in a word processor on the computer). Finally, using a paper solution doesn’t need an internet connection or power, as most electronic systems do.

While the physical method is something that doesn’t require an internet connection to use, there are plenty of negatives to it. Not every lab technician will have legible handwriting. If someone spills reagent on it, then the damage could erase months of writing. If a fire occurs, the data could be lost. Audits can be more difficult when they have to read the handwriting of several people. Some lab technicians have a disability that prevents them from being able to write even if they’re a fantastic assistant otherwise. It goes without saying the difficulty in keeping everything in storage and the amount of waste generated from it. And this isn’t even touching on how cumbersome it is to cart a paper notebook everywhere.

Others choose to utilize an electronic system for tracking data. One benefit of an electronic system is that data is immediately available to an employee. Depending on the system, it can upload data immediately from the instrument to a computer, aiding in speed and minimizing reporting error. A digital system can help centralize the data so that any technician can find information. It’s a greener solution to go paperless, as well. Some electronic systems even have data trails which can help the lab gain accreditation with major groups like the FDA. Another appealing aspect of an electronic system is that some disabled lab technicians can communicate with a keyboard fine even if they have difficulty writing on pen and paper.

What are some drawbacks of electronic systems? There’s an immediate cost that can be restrictive to some laboratories, as it seems much more appealing to pay $20 for a few lab notebooks vs. thousands for implementing an electronic system. In fact, many labs (90%!) cite the cost of electronic lab notebooks and application development to be something restricting their use of them. (1) A fear of someone hacking into your system and stealing data is often present with an electronic system. If the system goes down from an outage, you can’t input data and have to rely on the old-fashioned pen and paper. It might also mean flipping through several programs and struggling to get them to work together if your current system can’t integrate the information. This can be a waste of time, and difficult for some lab technicians to use.

The truth of the matter is that systems are, by and large, moving to a more automated electronic system. There are many reasons for this: it can minimize errors, it can help a lab work with speed and keeps data all on one easy, accessible area. But each system is different and not all of them are a good fit for labs. It can be easier to use a spreadsheet program and copy/paste that data into another program. But it might be time-consuming, and more importantly, there’s a security risk when using something as simple as a spreadsheet program. What can a lab do to efficiently and securely manage its data?

The best way for any lab to do this is a Laboratory Information Management System or a LIMS. But the core question is what is a LIMS? Some laboratories may already be familiar with the concept, some may be unfamiliar. In the next article of this series, we’ll discuss what a LIMS is, and what it can mean for your lab. Join us next time when we discuss this and more!

Citations- Kanza, S. et al. May 4, 2017. Vol 9, Iss 31. “Electronic lab notebooks: can they replace paper?”. Journal of Cheminformatics. Retrieved from