In its introductory handbook for physics students, the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, UK, says that lab notes “need not be particularly tidy, but they should be understandable by the writer or somebody else at a later date”. Written in 2008, the guidance adds: “Your notebook must be A4 in size and hard-bound. A suitable book can be bought from the laboratory technician.”

So far, no doubt, so familiar — but technology is marching on, and commuters are starting to abandon dog-eared paperbacks for e-books. For how much longer will the lab book prevail in its current form? And how many more notebooks will the Cavendish technicians sell?

Reports of the death of the standard lab book — in use for hundreds of years — are, of course, as premature as they are exaggerated. And Nature has been here before — in a feature in 2005, we reported that electronic notebooks were poised to become increasingly popular among researchers (see Nature 436, 20–21; 2005). The News Feature on page 430 of this issue, which takes a look at the rise of the digital lab, shows that we were right.

“Paper has nothing to offer me,” says Michelle James, an Alzheimer's disease researcher at Stanford University in California who is profiled in the feature, and who has moved her scientific notes to her iPad. James is far from alone — a generation of bench scientists is ditching paper and taking advantage of computer tablets and software that allow people to share protocols and swap notes. (If it cheers the old guard, who even now are vowing never to abandon their trusty notebooks and pencils, the digital-savvy researchers must place their fancy kit in plastic bags to protect it from spills.)

There is more to this than the migration of content from print to web. Just as newspapers have been able to exploit the Internet to reach readers and build communities in ways that they could not have imagined when they first started placing their copy online, so powerful processors and the digitization of data could let researchers analyse their results much earlier in the scientific process than is common now.

Such an approach is not completely new, but digitization makes it easier. The Cavendish introductory notes say: “Ideally you should plot graphs as you go along, not after completing the experiment, though in practice this is not always possible.” It is now.