“Remember Everything”: How I’ve Used Evernote As A Digital Lab Notebook

If you were to ask me, I’d say that Evernote’s more than “just a pretty cool piece of software”. It’s quite literally become the centre of most of my workflows.

In particular, I use Evernote extensively as a documentation system for my research work, effectively using it as a laboratory notebook. I’ve found Evernote to be a good replacement for a traditional pen-and-paper notebook, and it fulfills the ultimate goal that I have for making myself more efficient and effective in what I do. Here’s how I’ve used Evernote to get that done.

1. Typing as I go along

Because most of my work involves data analysis and coding, one practice that hasn’t gone away from my days at the bench side is to write as I go along. This is so important to do, both as a matter for graduate school and generally in life, as little details get lost if one doesn’t document one’s thoughts!

But because I type faster than I write, and because I think better when I see my thoughts unfolding on the screen, I have found that documenting my work as I go along has resulted in much clearer notes than when I used a paper-and-pen notebook.

2. Record keeping & linking notes

Typically, I write notes based on “themes” surrounding what I’m doing. For example, if I’m doing an analysis on something and it requires 2-3 days of time in total, it goes into a single note, but I use horizontal dividers to keep track of what happens on different days.

Additionally, if a thematic thing that I’m working on right now is linked to another note because that note forms the “background” or rationale to why I’m doing what I’m doing right now, then I will create a note link to the previous note for easy reference. This has saved me a number of times, as when I’m lost in the analysis, sometimes going back to the original intent can steer me back on course.

3. Adding in relevant files

One particularly nice thing about Evernote is the ability to add in-line attachments. I so hope that doesn’t go away in future iterations. The reason this is really good is because I can type up a few paragraphs describing some of my thoughts as I go along, and if there’s a file that is relevant to that thought, or that highlights a certain point, then I’ll have that file nearby as I review the note.

For example, there was once I was typing up notes about the standard “H3 numbering system” in influenza, and how it would change some of the numbering of amino acid positions around the HA receptor binding domain in my code. I therefore decided to attach a one-slide PowerPoint file which illustrated the standard numbering system. Here’s a screenshot of it below:

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 8.25.55 PM

Additionally, as shown by the image above, if I were to work on a digital file, I can attach it directly to Evernote to work on it, again having the immediate context and thoughts right at hand.

4. Markups on images

I attach images when I feel that doing so would enhance my recall and memory of what I’m thinking on the spot. The unfortunate thing is that to mark up the image would mean opening up some software that isn’t designed to do that one specific thing.

Luckily, Evernote now has Skitch capabilities embedded in it, and I find it to be a really user-friendly way to add annotations to the images that I attach. Again, I illustrate this above using the image on H3 numbering, but for good measure, I’ll attach another.


5. Sharing with lab mates

The work I do does not stand in isolation in the Runstadler lab. Rather, the things I do, namely, analysis and modelling, are things I do in conjunction with other lab mates. Therefore, I share my notebooks with my lab mates, especially the ones who are most relevant to the projects at hand.

I can control the access permissions based on what we agree on beforehand. The most common case is to permit viewing of notes + activity but without giving editing access, as this is the level of digital collaboration that they are most comfortable with. However, if we are working together on something that requires both of us to update the notebook together, then I can give them editing permissions as well.

6. Reviewing notes and updating them

As I go back to my previous analyses, sometimes, I think of new things. The nice thing about using Evernote is that my notes are editable. Therefore, I can add in more things to the note, and use formatting to indicate where I have done things incorrectly. I can add in insights that come in only after-the-thought, after doing the analysis or computer experiment.

Related notes also helps me a ton, by providing additional relevant context for the work I am recording. Just as it does with my reading notes, the Related Notes function gives me a great way to identify other things that I’ve done beforehand that is related to what I’m doing, sometimes even prompting me to add in an actual “linked note” to what I’m working on.

Unfortunately, this advantage is also a disadvantage for other things – for example, no patent agency will use an Evernote notebook as an admissible piece of evidence for innovation, simply because the notes are editable. Additionally, note versioning is only available for versions that have been synchronized, which is probably not at a sufficient degree of resolution. One way to get around this might be to use a digital pen, such as the LiveScribe pen, to take notes, and have it auto sync and update to Evernote. But for me, because I’m not doing bench work or anything that I intend to patent (I have a preference for keeping my work open-source), Evernote gets the job done well.

Taking a wider view, I do hope that eventually research work, be it in the physical & life sciences, or in humanities, ends up becoming digitized. The ability to link notes, and find related notes, is a definite plus that should get implemented in other software too. And always having a synchronized backup is worth much, much more – I dare not imagine having 3 years of work, recorded faithfully in paper notebooks, wiped out just like that in a flood or a fire or something like that!

One thought on ““Remember Everything”: How I’ve Used Evernote As A Digital Lab Notebook

  1. What I typically do is print out my notes afterward and paste/staple them into a lab notebook. At that point, I guess the notes are no longer digital, but the end result is far more readable than if had I written them in the first place (especially because I have notoriously messy handwriting!).

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