Electronic notebooks as a data curation tool for data librarians

This is the third and final installment of some reflections on using electronic notebooks (ELNs) as a tool for  data curation.  The first post looked at ELNs as a low cost alternative to the new Springer Nature research data support service.  The second post examined in detail capabilities needed by both ELNs and data repositories to optimize the use of ELNs as data curation tools.  In this post I’ll take a practical look at how data librarians can use ELNs to facilitate better curation of datasets bound for repositories.

Choose the right kind of ELN

The second post identified and explained four  capabilities needed by ELNs to optimize data structuring and hence provide a good platform for curation:

  1. Linking to multiple external data sources
  2. Linking between internal documents and resources
  3. Flexible data export
  4. Integrations with multiple data repositories

Working with an ELN with these capabilities will save time and enable data librarians and the researchers they are working with to take full advantage of structure that has been built into the research record during the active research phase.

Get involved with researchers as early as possible

This of course is goo practice for all sorts of reasons.  It’s relevant to optimizing use of ELNs in the following ways.  First, it will give you an opportunity to introduce a researcher to the benefits of using an ELN and the particular ELN they will be using, if they are not already familiar with these.  Conversely, if the researcher is using an ELN you are not familiar with this will provide an opportunity for the researcher to introduce it to you.  Either way, this will also open up an opportunity to discuss the research plan and to think in general ways about how the record of the research can be best structured to facilitate efficient deposit of relevant datasets into a repository.

The data management plan can, at least, be stored in the ELN, and, ideally, will be created in the ELN so that links can be made between the plan and relevant parts of the research record (this is an example of why the ability to link between internal documents and resources is useful).  If the ELN supports automatic conversion of Word and Open Office documents into documents in the ELN’s format, a good option is to import the Data Management Plan into the ELN with the converted in the ELN’s format, to facilitate more fine-grained linking between the DMP and relevant parts of the research record.  The DMP can conveniently be included as part of the datasets that are desposited in the repository at the end of the research project.

Get an account for the ELN that gives you access to the researcher’s data

Having an account for the ELN that allows you to view, and, possibly, comment on data produced by the researcher will save both you and them time and make your communication more efficient.  You can communicate using the ELN’s messaging system or, if supported by integrations with the ELN, you can communicate about preparation of datasets using chat tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts Chat.  You will need to discuss and agree with the researcher an arrangement that gives you convenient access yet does not raise fears that their research will be altered, and also provides for convenient communication channels using whatever tools you and they like to use and are supported by your institution.

Take full advantage of the structuring capabilities of the ELN

Whether or not you’re able to engage with the researcher early on in the project, when the time comes to collect and organize datasets for deposit in the repository, you’ll be in a much better position with the data having been collected and organized in the ELN during the active research phase.  Assuming the ELN has the external and internal linking capabilities noted above, all relevant data will be accessible from within the ELN, i.e. already collected and structured in a single resource, and selecting which datasets to include for deposit into the repository becomes a much more straightforward process.

The ability to see the pre-existing structure created during the active research phase likely will enable you to more quickly understand what the research is about and hence to be able to comment on what should do into the deposits and how it should be organized.  The ELN will also provide convenient tools — e.g. moving documents from one folder to another — for re-organizing datasets if after discussion you and the researcher think that would be useful.