Supporting Digital Notebook Usage at UPENN

We caught up with Barak Zahavy at the University of Pennsylvania to find out more about how research offices can support adoption and usage of new digital technologies in professional research labs.

We caught up with Barak Zahavy at the University of Pennsylvania to find out more about how research offices can support adoption and usage of new digital technologies in professional research labs.

Barak has over 20 years experience designing, implementing, and managing highly diversified technology platforms in the university space. He knows better than anyone that technology is only useful if people actually use it! Here are some of his insights on choosing technology, what works with implementation and what doesn’t and how to upkeep usage.

What is your role at the University of Pennsylvania?

I am the Director of Information Systems at the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of the Vice Provost for research. I oversee the planning, evaluation and integration of new technologies in support of Penn’s research enterprise.

Why did University of Pennsylvania decide to adopt LabArchives?

Today, of course, it seems that everything is online. It’s no surprise that there is increasing usage of online tools in research, and this trend includes lab notebooks. When we initially polled our researchers about it, there was a lot of interest. Many folks were already using electronic research notebooks, though across a wide spectrum of tools. That’s okay, since we don’t expect a single tool to be perfect for every person or project. But we saw an opportunity brewing.

Around the same time, we initiated a program to support research reproducibility and integrity. The scientific community has been exploring many strategies and ideas to bolster research excellence, as demonstrated at our 2018 Philadelphia regional symposium. At Penn, we identified electronic research notebooks as a tool that could support our researchers in maintaining the highest levels of credibility in their work.

UPenn BarakBarak and his team polled as many parties across the Penn research enterprise as possible to determine if there was interest in using digital lab notebooks.

We conducted a survey of our research community. Out of nearly 750 respondents, around 25% were already using some form of an electronic system for lab notebooks, and nearly 90% answered “Yes” or “Maybe” to the question of whether they would use an electronic research notebook system if the university provided it. We reviewed our options and ultimately selected LabArchives as the solution best fit for Penn.

After choosing to work with LabArchives what happened next?

As we were selecting an enterprise-wide electronic research notebook system, we engaged with many stakeholders across campus. We solicited input from our researchers and campus leadership to ensure we maximized the tool’s value. We also engaged with our Libraries and IT organizations, as they were key partners in the initiative. So, overall, we did a lot of communicating across the University. 

We did our due diligence with the contracting pieces and assured alignment with our information security and data protection standards. As we began our implementation we established an advisory group of campus stakeholders to help with overall direction as well as with the nuts and bolts of configuration decisions. This group helped liaise across key schools within Penn.

Vice ProvostUniversity of Pennsylvania’s Office of the Vice Provost launched a pilot program to help inform the larger roll out process.

What worked during implementation? What didn’t?

At the start of implementation we worked with our advisory group to make decisions regarding system-wide configurations and settings, and with our central IT group to set up sign-in with Penn login IDs. Overall, it went pretty smoothly. There were minor issues related to how our ID system and LabArchives played together. But the LabArchives team was very responsive and developed a fix quickly.

One of the best moves we made early on was to build a dedicated website for electronic research notebooks at Penn. It provides a simple way to direct new users as well as anyone who has a question about the service. Most important was a “getting started page” with an intuitive call to action to set up an account. 

Penn ELN

As with other new systems, not everyone adopts LabArchives in the same manner. Some people want to dive right in and figure things out on their own, and others need a trainer to walk them through how to use it. We thought we would help people get started by offering general training sessions available to everyone. So we would coordinate with a trainer from LabArchives, send out invitations, and then lo and behold, no investigators would show up. After this happened a couple of times, we switched strategies. Instead of inviting folks to come show up at a general introductory session, we started reaching out to individual labs and setting up times where we would bring the training to them, in their space, according to their schedule. This proved to be more a more effective approach in helping teams get set up with the system.

How does your team support uptake with digital tools like LabArchives?

For general support, LabArchives is very responsive and helpful, so we rely on our constituents to contact LabArchives directly for assistance. It seems that most of our users are comfortable going directly to LabArchives, but for our colleagues who need something closer to home, we do also offer a place to go for support in partnership with our Libraries.

LabArchives provides training for our users via web conference and in person. We are often making personal connections between our labs and LabArchives trainers. In a sense we are middlemen, but our constituents seem to appreciate this coordination to help them get off the ground.

As adoption at Penn has grown, we have advanced to the point where we can now offer open training sessions, and people will actually come. For two days in September, we held “Electronic Research Notebook Days”. Primarily planned as training sessions, we kicked the program off with a talk from our Vice Provost for Research discussing the significance of research notebooks. Then, two Penn researchers shared their experiences with LabArchives, setting the stage with real examples. The remainder of the time was dedicated to training sessions led by a senior trainer from LabArchives. About 100 researchers participated in the training sessions, including faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and research staff, spanning diverse fields of research.

Additionally, as we began the academic year, one of our major graduate studies programs incorporated electronic research notebooks into their orientation program for new students. LabArchives came to campus and worked with over 100 new students to get them set up and acquainted with the system. Such efforts are surely contributing to training the next generation of scientists in best practices for managing and organizing research data.

Now that things are up and running with LA, what does up keep look like from your perspective?

We strive to provide tools to Penn researchers that help advance their work. The easier we make it for them, the more they can focus on their discoveries. Building on the success of our recent training programs, looking ahead, we will be planning additional opportunities for Penn researchers to get the most value out of the system. 

We recently established an opt-in community email list to foster discussion and support among LabArchives users at Penn. It is too early to measure its effectiveness, but we hope it provides a channel for our researchers to share their collective wisdom, as well as a means for us to communicate updates with the most interested of users.

With the scaffolding in place, we don’t expect many changes in how we support LabArchives in the short term, but our efforts are ongoing. To some extent, we are augmenting a cultural shift in research practices. Over time, how people manage and share data will evolve, and we anticipate increasing reliance on electronic research notebooks. 

Thanks Barak for sharing your knowledge with us. 

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