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Why Protecting Research Data Should Be a Top Priority

Handwritten Notebooks Can Hold Priceless Raw Data

Over the past several decades, research in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and academic fields has been largely recorded by hand. Handwritten note taking is a legacy practice in scientific research, and continues in spite of all of the advances in data management and digital recording devices over the years. Because of this, key research findings, from decades past and even today, can sit unaccounted for in physical storage, posing a major risk to organizations’ intellectual property (IP).

Recent studies have found that as much as 80% of the raw scientific data collected in the 1990s has been lost. The reasons? Insecure data storage and expired contact info for research authors.

In the digital era, paper-based data storage has become an unacceptable risk. There are no backups, no easy ways to index and recall information, and very little visibility into historical findings.

Fortunately, we have the technology to bring handwritten research data (current or historical) into the digital sphere. R&D organizations can now protect their raw data from loss, theft, and mistaken destruction by scanning and indexing notebooks and storing them electronically.

Safeguard Raw Data by Scanning Lab Notebooks

Scanning lab notebooks should be an inherent part of any R&D process that relies on physical notes. As notebooks get older, we tend to lose track of them, making it difficult to find critical data easily. In the event of a fire, a flood, or simple misplacement, valuable findings can be lost for good if the results inside were not fully transcribed—at least if the numbers on data loss are any indicator. And that doesn’t even account for archived notes that, while secure, may be inaccessible because of the sheer bulk and disorder of their storage methods.

A prominent example of this was a major consumer products manufacturer, whose decades-deep research was recorded in paper notebooks and stored in a physical vault. They had no easy way to access their data, and no insight into the documentation of their historical R&D progress. In short, it would have been cumbersome and time consuming had they needed to find data to settle IP disputes or respond to audits. Fortunately, they chose to proactively work with a lab book scanning partner, who was able to scan the back and front covers of over 17,000 paper notebooks and create a digital index of their archived work. Now they have a computerized directory of their research going back decades. Should they be subject to an audit or need to get back to historical research, they can locate proof of their innovation and research progress within minutes.

Safeguarding raw data helps to protect your intellectual property. Having the ability to recall historical work will help your organization claim its discoveries and fend off IP grabs from competitors. Rapid access to research information streamlines audits as well, by providing quick access to the findings and activities of your laboratory over the years. That can also help you faithfully reproduce experiments and avoid any perception of flawed research methods.

There are three approaches to scanning and securing raw data:

  1. The researcher can wait until each book is full, producing digital volumes at long intervals.
  2. The researcher can scan as they go, digitizing notebooks as “work in progress” with new data being regularly scanned and incorporated into a master file until the notebook is complete.
  3. In the case of vast historical archives, digital images can be taken of each volume to create a digital directory of the physical notes.

In all cases, the research is protected from loss and given better visibility; researchers can easily retrieve data from past experiments for review, further study, sharing, or any other research protocols.

Pages can be scanned in full color, with images of every page loaded into a document management system that secures data and enables quick retrieval. Scanned documents can also be delivered as PDFs for storage and access on your internal company network. Lastly, thanks to advances in scanning technology, all of this can be achieved without damaging the original lab books.

To summarize the benefits of lab notebook scanning:

  • Raw data, including notes, sketches, and diagrams, can be preserved indefinitely
  • Digital directories can be created for historical archives
  • Scanning policies can be implemented to ensure that the employer retains all of a researcher’s work
  • Scanned lab books can be easily shared with colleagues, auditors, regulators, and other authorized individuals

The Cost of Not Digitizing Lab Notes

In research settings, we tend to digitize the most immediately useful results and leave out details that don’t seem to advance the central R&D program. It’s not a great practice, but it is a common reality of R&D; executives and managers want to see key strategic results in a report, and they’re not always interested in the marginal notes, literally or figuratively. The problem is, it’s hard to know in the moment which observations will turn out to be useful and relevant for future work.

Simply put, relying solely on the experimental write-up process to digitize your data can endanger their long-term validity. To maintain valid results, experiments need to be both precise and reproducible. If they’re not, everything that you’ve built on those results may come into question.

But theoretical dangers aren’t the only hazard. Notebooks are also vulnerable to theft, misplacement, disaster, and deterioration, half of which are heightened by employee turnover.

Even employees with good intent or contractual obligations aren’t always able to collect and organize every bit of information they’ve recorded for you. At best, that data loss becomes a waste of resources. At worst, poor documentation can lead to audit-based fines and can even jeopardize your company’s intellectual property.

To put it into context, consider this: Your company’s research yields a major discovery. Your employee’s notebook is legal proof of who, how, where, and when it happened. Except…you can’t find it. Your competition, despite making the same discovery after you (with your help or not), can produce their own proof. You’re now exposed to patent infringement liability and a damaged reputation, and you don’t even have the rights to your own breakthrough.

The surest way to avoid all of this? Lab book scanning—the setup, the diagrams, the dates, the scribbles, and all. And since no researcher has time to digitize that manually, the best move is to partner with a document scanning company.

Choosing a Lab Notebook Scanning Partner

Given the implications of lost data, it’s clear that a document scanning company can offer much-needed security and insurance for your research—but that doesn’t mean that all document scanning partners are created equally.

The right scanning partner will have the appropriate tools and technology for the job, such as full-color, V-shaped scanners that gently scan bound books without breaking or cutting their bindings (which, depending on the field, could actually be illegal) while providing crisp digital images of every page. They should also be responsive to your company’s preferred format; many companies opt to have scanned images delivered as PDFs, but an experienced partner can output images in the format of your choice via physical storage media or cloud-based document management platforms.

Lab professionals, R&D firms, and universities will always be at some kind of IP risk given the sensitivity of their work, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take stock of how they manage raw data. Document scanning is an insurance policy for breakthroughs. It improves the ease and security of accessing research progress, and more often than not proves to be a useful index for posterity—all of which begs the question: are there really viable reasons not to digitize?

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