As chemists, we rely on our lab notebooks for quite a number of things. They are how we keep track of our own results, how other people subsequently repeat things, and, perhaps most importantly, how we organize thoughts and results for later analysis. The number of times I’ve made key advances in research by a timely re-reading of an old notebook has me convinced that proper organization and research efficiency have a direct correlation. Moreover, having a reliable way of making sure those results last as long as possible–ideally forever–is important. A loss of research documents to a “lab fire” or “lab flood” is inexcusable in the modern age.
Speaking of the modern age, since the day I first started doing lab work, I have sought to find a good electronic lab notebook (eLN) solution. When I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, we had an eLN that was alright–not great, but alright. I assume that, since then, that software has improved (I would love some feedback from anyone who has experience with a modern pharma eLN), but what certainly hasn’t is the price: the average eLN either costs enormous amounts of money or is mostly useless in terms of its feature set. As a result, the barrier to trying a given piece of software is staggeringly high; in fact, usually the less trouble or expense you have to go through to try out an eLN, the lower the odds are that you’ll actually like it enough to use it. Most of the biggest offenses in “useful” lab notebooks come down to a lack of features (glorified text editor versus a scientific data editor), lack of integration with experimentation (how does this software fit into my work flow? Is it fundamentally as easy to use in the lab as a paper notebook?), and a lack of back-up and sharing features (I need my data to be safe, and ideally I should be able to send it to my coworkers). Honestly, the best solution I had for a long time was an Excel document that I would keep in a Dropbox folder, but maintaining that became too cumbersome after a short while.
With all of this in mind, I was intrigued to see that Mekentosj was advertising a new eLN-type software called Findings. Mekentosj is a company that I have a huge amount of respect for; they’re responsible for Papers, the software that revolutionized how I read and keep track of the literature, so I really looked forward to seeing if they could solve my eLN problem, too. I’ve spent the past month using Findings as my primary lab notebook in an effort to evaluate it as an eLN option and I’d like to share with you my… findings. If you’re short on time, suffice it to say that I thoroughly like what I see and look forward to where they take the software in the future.
In the interest of transparency, Mekentosj provided me with a copy of Findings for Mac OS and iOS for the purposes of this trial. I was in regular contact with a representative, Charles Parnot, as I used the software and questions arose. Other than that, they have had no input in this review, nor do I have any conflicts of interest with Mekentosj other than generally liking their style.
So, what is Findings? It advertises itself as a method of organizing and archiving experiments. I will say upfront that the software is designed with the life sciences in mind, especially biologists. A major feature is the inclusion of customizable “protocols,” which can be used as pre-written notebook pages for typical experiments. More importantly, the software uses an interactive calendar feature to let you drag and drop in as many protocols as required for a given experiment and portion off time down to an hourly basis according to the demands of that experiment. The time scale the software expects you to use is on the order of days, which is typical in biology, but some of the organization features are a little more coarse than what we need as chemists.
When you open Findings, you’re opened with a relatively Spartan opening screen. Unlike Papers, Findings makes use of big buttons with plenty of open space; the screenshot below is a bit misleading, given that I (intentionally) left only one active experiment, but you can see how the tiles display information clearly, if a little inefficiently. While with one experiment it looks like a waste of space, when I have a dozen or so going at once, I really appreciate the extra padding provided by this formatting. When an experiment has been edited in a given day, it turns blue and the most recent edit is displayed on the tile, making it easy to check where everything stands. Up top, on the left you can select “Experiments,” and sort them by project and level of completeness. On the right, you can see your protocols. How useful the protocols section is to you really depends on how dedicated you are to planning ahead of time. Early on, I couldn’t be bothered writing up the protocols I use ahead of time, but once I did, I found the labor of writing up a notebook page was substantially lessened. The use of protocols in this way makes setting up a routine experiment, or even just implementing a typical work-up in a synthetic experiment makes building a notebook page easy. Moreover, the fact that it apportions your time accordingly in its calendar makes it a bit easier to plan experiments throughout a day. That work-up takes two hours, but another takes one? If seminar is in an hour and a half, drag the two pages around and your time is reapportioned accordingly. Granted, it doesn’t account for multitasking, and certainly isn’t the ultimate in organization technology, but it helps keep things from getting forgotten and keeps things in perspective, visually.
This is where Findings really shines. Features like Protocols address the typical bad habits of scientists not just by providing a crutch, but by adding functionality that rewards you for being on top of things. Whether you just use Protocols for creating experiment templates or go all-in and build your day with them, you’ll probably be glad for the convenience at least.
The other place where this mantra really works is in the desktop app’s interaction with the mobile app. The mobile app is iPhone-only (though an iPad version is forthcoming, or so I’m told) and acts as an experiment editor more than an experiment creator. Using a slightly modified interface, it lets you add observations in nuggets, with each “nugget” having the possibility of containing photos, notes or warnings. I found myself regularly photographing experiments and making observations in realtime; the iPhone’s built-in voice-to-text feature makes operating the phone one-handed easy and effective (although your labmates may begin to worry about you talking to yourself). All of the information that’s added gets synchronized to your Dropbox, and photos taken within the app go right to your Dropbox and don’t clutter up your camera roll. Here’s the first hitch with Findings, really: while the fact that it syncs with Dropbox is fantastic, the syncing is very buggy and often unreliable. That said, during the course of my trial, I was in regular contact with Charles and I can say confidently that the problems are much further and far between now than a month ago. For those who would prefer to use pen and paper in lab, the software exports beautiful printouts of experiments that can be used as dedicated scratch paper. I often use these to let my hood mate know what I’m working on and keep notes if my phone isn’t handy.
So at this point, two of my major points are covered: the software integrates well into my experimentation routine and the data is backed up automatically. How does the software fare in terms of feature set?
This is probably the biggest place for improvement in Findings. The software makes building procedures fairly straightforward and easy, but chemists will be somewhat disappointed. Because the software is designed with biologists in mind, there is no support for Chemdraw or any other structures. This is inconvenient, but I often prepare graphics in Chemdraw and insert them, then attach all the Chemdraws as files. It isn’t as elegant as some other chemistry-focused eLNs, but it isn’t so cumbersome that I wouldn’t recommend it. The biggest gap is the lack of support for tables, but the company has already announced that this is forthcoming; whether they will be able to auto-calculate reagents with molecular weights and such is to be determined. While the experimental editor is good, and probably great for non-chemists, it is definitely lacking for chemistry. Mekentosj claims to be very open to suggestions, so lets hope they include something like this soon.
So there you have it: Findings is a solid piece of software that does a fantastic job of not only working itself into your experimental life, but finding small ways to alleviate bad habits, too. The fact that it synchronizes experimentals, attachments (including instrument files, I might add; I attach FIDs for NMR all the time) and photos to Dropbox makes me feel a little more secure about the lifetime of my data. The major drawback is a lack of chemistry-centric features. I would love Chemdraw support, reagent tables, and support for compound numbering/identification, but those are definitely not here, though hopefully if the chemistry community takes the software to heart, these will be added. However, the biggest advantage I can cite for Findings, despite its limitations, is its price. At $39 ($23 for students), the price is right for an individual purchase, and group discounts are available. For everything it does, especially with the mobile app added in, Findings is great value and definitely has room to grow.
If you’re interested in trying Findings and want to give it a go at even lower of a price point, Charles has generously offered to give the first twenty people who subscribe to the Findings newsletter a coupon for a free download of Findings! If you’re already subscribed, email Charles and mention this post and you’ll get the coupon, too. I’ll be sure to edit this post when they’re all spoken for.
Edit: if you’re getting a 405 error signing up for the newsletter, use this link instead: newsletter
All the free licenses are spoken for! Have fun lab-note booking !