If you have been a scientist in a good laboratory practice (GLP) setting long enough, you’ll be familiar with certain buzzwords that carry ominous connotations – words like raw data, traceability, and the even scarier deviation.
There is even an acronym for some of these words:A.L.C.O.A (not to be confused with the aluminum company!). In the experimental research field, the acronym stands for Attributable, Legible, Contemporaneous, Original, and Accurate. Whilst all of them are important for the upkeep of good laboratory practices, if you’re an end-user scientist thinking about them as you go about your day, you might be wasting your time…
Enter electronic documentation systems. I’m not just talking about a digital means to record your information, but a system that, when used correctly, will handle many of these A.L.C.O.Asteps, letting you focus on your science.
Let’s go back to that acronym.
We have all forgotten to initial or sign something at some point. Someone has probably had to track you down at least once, and you have experienced the awkward moment of being called out for forgetting to do something that seems so obvious.
Remembering to sign or initial work isn’t something you should have to worry about. A good documentation system will know when it needs to ask you for the digital equivalent of a signature and, at all other times, will log your entries automatically as belonging to you.
This one is obvious. We all know someone who has terrible handwriting. In the scientific community it may even be the norm rather than the exception! I am that person.“Why are you even giving me a pen? Why does the pen have to be blue or black?”
These days, documentation styles should have names like ‘Tahoma’, ‘Calibri’, ‘Times New Roman’ and ‘Arial’, not ‘penmanship’. Colors should be whatever makes for a good interface or matches a corporate color pallet.
This is a five-dollar word with a fifty-cent meaning. It means recording ‘at the same time’ as the observation or action. Let’s be honest, not only have you forgotten to put a date and/or time on something in the past, you may have also put the wrong one. This commonly happens to me on the first of the month. That first week of January every year is even worse!
Any electronic system will know what time and date it is and will log the timestamp of every entry. An investment in lab terminals will mean that there is never a delay in when you can record information. A good user interface can make data entry instantaneous and instrument integration can ensure that the majority of data is either partially or fully recorded – automatically.
Have you ever pasted papers into a paper notebook? This method only makes sense when you ‘receive’ paper records (certificates) – you should also only print when you need to ‘provide’ paper records (reports).
The lab itself should be a paper-free zone so that you aren’t even tempted to ‘not’ record original data. The electronic system should be able to capture all your regular data and have the ability to capture non-regular data, too. Once again, an investment in lab terminals will mean that a method of recording is always available. Instrumentation can, and should, send data directly to an electronic system.
Every one of the points I’ve mentioned here speak to the needs of documentation first and the those of science second. But, accuracy in your science is fundamental.
By integrating your recording processes with instrumentation data capture, accuracy can only improve. Any materials and equipment you use don’t need be manually entered, just barcode scanned and referenced for unquestioned precision. If something has expired or is out of calibration, the system can tell you.
Of course, you’ll still need to be accurate with the science, but you shouldn’t have to worry if you write ‘acetone’ instead of ‘acetonitrile’. With an electronic system, you simply pick up the bottle, scan it, and the system will tell you if it isn’t right before use.
All of the A.L.C.O.A elements of lab management matter, but addressing them doesn’t have to be a burden on scientists. A good electronic documentation system will reduce the amount of paperwork and distractions that scientists face each day.
We are all flawed humans that can, and will, make mistakes. The best way to prevent errors isn’t to have more checks – instead, we need to recognize that automating aspects of our data capture and entry is more efficient and far more reliable. By embracing electronic systems, we can free up more time for the research and development that we’re employed to do – and who doesn’t want that?