Too often when errors or cases of fraud occur in science, the lab data required to reconstruct what happened have gone astray. And too often, the co-authors failed to exert due scrutiny on their colleagues' activities in order to prevent such misfortunes. The damage to personal and institutional reputations can be severe and, in rare high-profile cases, public trust can be eroded.

It is therefore in everyone's interest to pre-empt such cases as far as possible. Electronic laboratory notebooks offer a partial solution — and have other advantages too. This is despite the fact that maximizing their benefits will require a change in culture that many researchers will no doubt initially resist.

Electronic notebooks, like their paper cousins, record the daily thoughts and experiments of bench scientists. Ideally, they contain data that flow automatically from lab instruments and can be read by all lab members. Pages are date- and time-stamped, and all changes tracked and signed. Earlier versions can be reconstructed.

There are numerous e-notebook products available, but none dominates in all sectors. The pharmaceutical industry, which is well accustomed to regulation, has adopted company-wide solutions, and the US Food and Drug Administration has determined that the use of electronic notebooks is acceptable in drug filings. This high degree of usage is in stark contrast to academia.

So why bother? Most importantly, e-notebooks allow the sharing of data, to the immediate benefit of collaborators (for examples, see Nature 436, 20; 2005). And just knowing that a notebook is available to others in the lab, and archived for the future, should compel the keeping of better records.

But one can and should go further. Electronic notebooks can be archived by researchers' employers, with a number of attendant benefits. If each notebook (or subset of it) is allocated a unique identifying code — a permanent alphanumeric string containing information about provenance, creation dates and digital location — it can be cited in journals as a confirmation that the data are safely stored, ultimately available and sharable (with due regard for the rights of the researchers involved). It also confirms that the original data can be retrieved in the case of errors or accusations of fraud. No longer would claims of lost notebooks be brought up in misconduct investigations.

An additional benefit is that the data may have a value not only to the researchers who produced them but to others too, independently of the publications that report them. That value can be recognized explicitly by citation of the identifying code, enabling due credit to be given to the researchers who produced them.

Any change that requires adjustments to the way scientists go about their daily work meets with resistance and, for many researchers, lab notebooks are wrongly considered to be private property. Academic acceptance of e-notebooks will not improve unless universities promote their use and recognize that e-notebooks can help them fulfil their responsibilities as the owners of most grant-funded data. There will be challenges with respect to maintenance of the archives and the standardization of software, but those who have invested in this approach have seen the benefits.

Institutions therefore need to show leadership in this area, and funding agencies should provide additional infrastructure support earmarked for the development and upkeep of electronic notebook systems. Funding agencies also need to recognize that, by providing such support, some of the concerns over the loss of data can be assuaged, and the rigour and transparency of publicly funded research will be improved.