Electronic Lab Notebooks: What they are (and why you need one)
Have you, or your lab, considered getting an electronic lab notebook? Are you not sure if the ELN will be good for your lab? Do you have lots of ELN questions? You’re not alone.
Research scientists all over the world are making the switch from using old-fashioned lab notebooks to adopting a modern electronic lab notebook. And for good reason.
ELNs are powerful technologies, so there are multiple factors to consider. This article will help you understand the benefits of moving your lab notes into a digital environment to help you accelerate the pace of your scientific discoveries.
Table of Contents
What Is An Electronic Lab Notebook?
An Electronic Laboratory Notebook (or ELN) is exactly what it sounds like — it’s a digital version of the traditional lab notebook. It’s a place where you can record and store your experimental results.
Unlike a traditional notebook, an ELN allows you for accessing, sharing, and analyzing data in a way that is not possible with a paper lab book. Instead of just being words on a page, an ELN is a sophisticated software platform that allows you to aggregate important information about your experiments into one digital place, making it easily searchable and reusable for subsequent experiments.
Since the vast majority of research data is digital to begin with, the ELN makes printing out and then cutting and pasting results into a paper notebook obsolete. The ELN also spells the end of illegible handwriting or damaged notebook pages that make reading past experimental results or procedures impossible. The ELN is making manual notebook use obsolete entirely — and for good reasons.
At the same time, ELN differs from general-purpose note-taking software, such as Evernote and Microsoft OneNote, because the former is custom-built for scientific research. Whether you need to draw a chemical structure or document a bioassay protocol, you can bet that an ELN will have those capabilities.
Even if your lab already has its procedures in digital form, where are they stored? Are they secure? Who can access it? Does your whole team have access to the key documents they need or are things in disparate places on individual computers? These are essential questions that protect the integrity of your work, your lab, and your intellectual property.
An ELN provides the ability to have your procedures, your raw data library, and your analyzed results all in one secure place. While the ELN market offers a variety of choices, it’s important to evaluate the quality of those ELNs and to decide if the ELN meets the needs of your lab. There are important questions to consider. For example, is it a collaborative ELN for working with colleagues with complementary expertise? Is it directly integrated with my database? Is it easy to get started?
Can An ELN Adequately Replace Paper?
The paper laboratory notebook has been around for centuries. Scientific breakthroughs from the 18th Century through to today have at one point been recorded in such a notebook. Writing in a notebook can feel like you are connecting with some of history’s science greats. In the words of Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” And while nostalgia is great, it is not the best way to do high-quality science. Today, we have better tools for tracking research and better tools to (re)-use our past results.
One massive problem facing today’s science is reproducibility. When experiments are not reproducible, everyone suffers — from wasting time pursuing a result that was not real to creating products that end up not working. It’s a huge and important issue. Multiple factors feed into the reproducibility crisis, but correctly recording and documenting experimental procedures and results is key to improving reproducibility.
Additionally, not creating digital records of data accounts for 17% of data loss and is a major cause of delays and setbacks in research. With an ELN, your experimental data becomes searchable and all the results are at your fingertips. It’s like being able to do a ctrl-F on your old-fashioned notebook. You can also conveniently do a ctrl-C or ctrl-V.
The ELN platform records procedures and data much more reliably and thoroughly than is possible with traditional notebook entries. All changes are stored in the software and because the raw data can be stored alongside the analyzed results, it’s simple to see how a conclusion was drawn.
While the paper laboratory notebook has been around since the dawn of scientific study, this does not mean that we should just keep using it. The technical advancements of the past 50 years or so have increased the complexity of research experiments tremendously. The methods that we use to record, store, and share our data need to match these technical advancements.
In today’s world, the majority of research data capture, analysis, and results are performed and presented in a digital format. Having to transcribe your digital data onto the written page and then back into a digital format for publishing is unnecessary, time-consuming, and prone to errors. If you want your research to move forward at the rapid pace of science in the Internet era, using an ELN is non-negotiable.
Enter the ELN
An ELN should work with underlying data generation, archival, and mining capabilities. Ideally, these technologies support natural workflows for your scientific research. Commonly used data analysis software can be integrated directly with an ELN so that all the parts of your experiment can be stored in one place. This allows a complete view of all experiment records, data analyses, and protocols.
You can see a step-by-step view of the experiment and all the modifications and analysis that have been done. Using an ELN provides transparency within your research group, allowing your pace of discovery to accelerate.
Given today’s digital and global culture, it is ironic that lab notes sometimes can be one of the last pieces of the research process that have resisted modernization. Digital platforms have streamlined and optimized much of today’s scientific research and development. Because data and protocols are digital, they are most useful in software for automated computational processes tools. The key is to automate the more manual aspects of digital workflows, whenever practical.
Scientists work in labs where lab equipment is controlled by computers for data acquisition and analysis. There is a need for secure and reliable documentation of both the data and protocols (also sometimes referred to as metadata). Leading companies and academic labs have embraced the digital paradigm. Science has always been data-driven. Today, it is driven by much more data than in the past.
Pen and ink notes have been revered as a sacred pillar of history that scientists trust and respect. Its sense of simplicity and reliability and inertia has caused them to resist this piece of modernization. The ritual of handwritten tracking methods and sharing their recorded information is the old way of recording experiments. With electronic laboratory (learning) notebooks, scientists can enter, store, and share their data as appropriate. The technology provides greater security, accuracy, and reproducibility of the work.
Moving into an electronic laboratory notebook allows for more organized, legible data combined with superior record-keeping. Significant time savings come from searchability and the integrity of data. Can’t remember what laboratory instruments you used in that experiment five years ago? A quick search gives you the answer, rather than having to flip through volumes of pages.
The benefits of the ELN go beyond just making lab note-taking work digital. ELNs are high-functioning data managers that can incorporate data from multiple sources. Regardless of the data source, the ELN provides a permanent archive and an audit trail.
Data and protocols from your phone, your computer, or manually entry can be imported in standardized formats in an ELN. Standard file formats allow you to separate the data from the applications. Ideally, a web-based lab notebook app interface provides easy access and increased accuracy for a variety of different projects, labs, and collaborations within a single system.
Say goodbye to messy pages and scribbled, illegible writing. Now your data is stored in a centralized system that manages the entire research continuum.
14 Benefits of an Electronic Lab Notebook
- Consolidated, centralized data management.
- Increased clarity and organization of data and protocols.
- 21 CFR Part 11 compliance with audit trails and tight access controls for inspection.
- Simplified consolidation of samples, reagents, lots, plates, barcodes, order numbers, order tracking, and sample tracking, including batch data and meta-data.
- Digital Archival of lab results within a secure web-based platform for easy accessibility.
- Enhanced collaboration via securely shared search functionality within and between (selected) scientific teams - both physically in and out of the lab.
- Ease of tracking sample information along with the ability to add files, external links, graphs, and rdf tags.
- Accessibility in and outside the lab for current and future research - a permanent archive.
- Secure software balanced accessibility across the team and inter-institution sharing of resources, with technologies like 2-factor identification, unique passwords, IP Address restrictions, and data-protocol partitioning.
- Externally hosted setup and maintenance costs are often included in the licensing fee. This keeps the responsibility for ongoing administration, upgrades, and maintenance with the provider (and most guarantee reliability and document up-time).
- Your documents and files are organized and accessible from anywhere with an internet connection.
- You eliminate extra waste, unclear penmanship, and documentation.
- Integration with complex LIMS systems supports both structured and unstructured data.
- Ability to export or share in multiple formats.
Disadvantages of Different Types of ELNs
There is always a small risk of a security breach with any system, even with data encryption assurances. Most security breaches are functions of suboptimal user behavior (i.e., avoiding best practices). However, increased monitoring, security “defense in depth”, awareness of best practices, and vigilance can significantly minimize security risks. More information on how you can help maintain the security and privacy of your data can be found online.
There are pros and cons of hosted versus on-premise ELNs, but clearly the trend has been to much greater adoption of hosted solutions due to a number of advantages (economic, scale, collaborative, rate of improvement, convenience of deployment, uptime, security, etc.).
How to Use an ELN
Using an electronic laboratory notebook can be nearly as easy as using popular word documentation software. Digital software programs have made the move to digital notebook an easy transition with a much lower learning curve than in the past.
Instead of documenting your notes, processes, and research protocol in a notebook made of writing paper, those same notes will be entered or imported through a centralized computer system. Ideally, you access your electronic lab notebook from any internet-connected device — whether you are logged in from a computer, phone, tablet, or another mobile device.
The ELN data notebook entry process through a text editor provides formatting you would find in a word document. With online notebook systems with a user-friendly interface, you can simply try the system to see how easily it will work. ELNs allow for seamless importing and exporting documents and spreadsheets. More specialized scientific ELNs can analyze specialized lab data types like chemical structures, biological sequences, dose-response curves, annotations, and controlled vocabularies.
You’ll have formatting capabilities and the ability to easily organize your documents. A collaborative ELN allows researchers to either keep content private or selectively share with an entire team. Whether done individually or collaboratively, powerful searching technologies allow for different ways to interrogate the content and different data types. Searching through all the documents with appropriate access permissions balances privacy with group efficiency.
The digital notebooks incorporate and organize graphs, images, tables, and annotations. You can create SOPs and templates to assist with reproducibility. The available features of an ELN ideally can be accessed through an intuitive user interface within a software platform that is nearly as easy to use as familiar office-based or online document sharing packages.
Data Security With An ELN Platform
When performing experiments, your notebook is a legal document that represents your scientific results. When filing for patents, or making related intellectual property claims, the lab book becomes formal evidence. As scientists, you are aware of the importance of your lab notes and your scientific work. A traditional notebook is not necessarily the best way to maintain an accurate and thorough record of your experiments.
The way that lab notes are often kept secure is by locking them up in the lab overnight. This works but means that the notebook is inaccessible anywhere except in the lab during daytime.
What about your data and results? How are those being stored? Many researchers are using online databases like Dropbox or Google Drive integration to share and store their data. And while this is convenient, it does not provide the same level of access control as an ELN.
A more secure way to share among lab members and collaborators is an electronic research notebook. The ELN platform provides a secure software that can house both your research data and corresponding protocols on the electronic record.
The FDA has also switched to encouraging organizations to submit completely electronic documents, as traditional methods are becoming obsolete. Back in 1997, the FDA deemed that electronic records would hold up legally in the same way as handwritten records. This opened up the gates for the adoption of electronic research notebooks.
However, to ensure the security of research data, the FDA implemented even more stringent guidelines for the ELN. In what is commonly referred to as 21CFR11 and GxP, the FDA upped the standards that medical and pharmaceutical companies had to meet to rigorously document their processes for using digital data security.
Typically documented functionality includes processes using electronic signatures, audit trails, modification tracking, and thorough standard operating procedures (SOPs) throughout the organization. These requirements are more important at the later stages of drug discovery and development, the closer you get to an Investigational New Drug (IND) filing.
Rigorously documenting your processes using an ELN will help your organization stay compliant, maintain data integrity, and data security.
Choosing Where Your ELN Data Lives
Where your ELN lives can address many needs for security and shareability. The primary concern for this valuable data lies in both protecting it as well as making it accessible to the right people, at the right time. Ideally the technology works so well it is just taken for granted.
ELNs can be hosted or within an organization’s on premise environment.
With a hosted server - the most popular storage option, there are advantages that include:
- Cost advantages from both the absence of set-up costs, as well as the minimization of ongoing maintenance fees (often included in the initial license fee)
- No customer IT responsibility for set-up, administration, or server maintenance.
- Accessible data, protocols, and documents from anywhere by anyone on your team (consistent with allowed access permissions).
- Minimum service level guarantees (typically >>99% uptime).
The downside to hosted solution from a third party provider include:
- Your data may share space on the same server as others and though held separately, some deem that a risk they are unwilling to bear. There are pros and cons to multi-tenant and single-tenant architecture, primarily related to costs.
- If the internet goes down anywhere along the line, then your access will not be available. Fortunately, today internet access has become much more reliable than in the past.
- Dependency on the security and privacy practices of the organization (which may be better or worse than your own organization’s practices)
For some research organizations, a hosted solution is preferred and for others an on premise environment is preferred. A middle option is a private cloud server. Your ELN software provider should be familiar with the pros and cons of the different options. Ideally, there is expertise and documentation of best practices.
Ease of setup, use, and reduced costs are prevailing decision-making factors for an organization adopting hosted solutions. For larger companies with different data storage and backup policies, the additional costs of an on-premise solution may be worth it.
Lab-Wide Research Data Accessibility
One of the biggest benefits of using an ELN is that you can easily share your data and results with lab members and collaborators, in a controlled manner. You can choose who can see what scientific data, who can edit or add to the ELN, and who has admin access. Instead of emailing important results or sharing spreadsheets in Google Drive, you can securely and quickly share your research with the people who need access to it. An ELN together with a registration system can be a complete data management solution.
Allowing for real-time collaboration between researchers saves time and money. Researchers don’t have to wait around for the data they need to perform their experiments — or worse, repeat experiments that have already been done, wasting both time and resources.
This is especially useful as collaborations become global and you may not be working in the same location as those people with whom you are collaborating.
Since collaborative research ELN platforms can be hosted solutions, all your data is recorded, stored in a scientific data repository, and can be accessed from anywhere. Experimental results can be instantly shared with the interested parties and the scientific discovery process can continue without a hitch. This is not at all possible with traditional laboratory notebooks. And collaboration is often not practical with on-premise solutions that require cumbersome access methods.
Drug discovery requires an interdisciplinary team. Often, the lack of communication between different teams can cause delays and errors in the pipeline. Using an ELN that all team members can access brings ease, quickness, and confidence into the highly collaborative drug discovery process.
ELNs Positively Impact Team Work
Research is a collaborative effort. So while ensuring the best security protocols are in place to protect your data, you also want to streamline the sharing process to the trusted people on your team and experts in the field. When funding is on a deadline and efficiency equals money gained or lost, the accessibility to data to enhance collaboration is a premium need.
The ELN offers the ability to manage a team by creating access groups and subgroups with flexible restrictions and access functions that open the door to the right data at the right time, to the right people. It allows for exclusivity and the power of selection based on assigned user rights. The specificity of information, how it is accessed, shared and exported can all be controlled. The right platform will also allow you to change team access individually and by group without losing the contributed data.
A team engaged through the ELN can experience increased engagement. Both individuals and organizations can track ownership of their data and appreciate their contributions to the bigger project. Active communication and visual tracking of work creates experiential integration of concrete executed work. The ease of finding and sharing data across the lab creates cohesiveness and enhanced purpose for the lab as a whole.
ELNs and Inventory Tracking
Some ELN software systems have their own inventory tracking system integration that allows for lab inventory management within the same software that stores your data. Having this feature included in your electronic notebook solution adds benefits from streamlined workflows. There is a significant efficiency when you eliminate the bulk of multiple systems. This powerful capability accessed through the same interface as your data adds an extra value from lab management. Ideally, the software supports custom templates and fields to identify and track material information in your database a variety of entities (i.e., protocols, raw bioactivity data points, process data, chemicals, biologicals, drug candidates, antibodies, reagents, primers, plasmids, etc.).
An inventory setup allows you to upload and update quantities of scientific laboratory supplies, expiration dates, lab storage locations, item descriptions, and even scanned barcodes. Again, ideally, you can allow or restrict access to individuals and selected groups.
Good inventory management allows you to find specific items and materials used in any particular experiment and reference them with ease, which helps with reproducibility and regulatory compliance.
Adhering to Good Laboratory Practices
Regulatory compliance is crucial for organizations in many healthcare data-related industries. The OECD has established Good Laboratory Practices (GLP) guidance for data security and storage that applies to ELNs.
When researching an ELN, you want an assessment of the security measures for data security and storage. You want clear assurance that your data is protected from hackers. You want tracking for edits to ensure integrity.
You want restrictions that can be customized and a secure method to share, export, or migrate your data to the right people at the right time. Anyone on your team or with your collaborators may have the key discovery and data that provides the foundation for composition of matter and/or utility patents.
Your digital lab notebook should provide procedures for exporting and reliability for access and sharing. This will include information on data protection and online backup data storage scheduling.
GLP compliance includes ensuring confidentiality through user agreements as well as through encryption and authentication protocols with electronic signatures across all levels of your team.
Your ELN can meet strict adherence to GLP best practices — including processes outlined in the FDA 21 CFT Part11 and ISO certification. The right software will give you clarity, data backup, tracking, and clear data paths.
Electronic Lab Notebooks and LIMS
With ELNs coming out in the late 1990s (but still not widely adopted) and Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) coming out in the late 1960s, the longevity of this technology is becoming more widely used in both research and commercial labs today. LIMS has 30 years on the ELN and has seen dramatic evolution in data management. LIMS ability to link information from samples and projects has increased their use in QA/QC environments in particular.
While some may look at LIMS and ELN as competing systems, they can in fact complement each other and provide comprehensive data management for the lab. The lines are becoming blurred as vendors and users use LIMS, ELNs and registration systems to support similar workflows.
LIMS is a database that manages lab resources. Historically LIMS were used to manage information that was then entered into traditional non-electronic lab notebooks. Whereas the ELN manages projects, protocols, data entry, teams, sharing, exporting, publishing, procedures, and team collaboration. An ELN tracks and gives timelines over the process where LIMS manages the research resources including samples, reagents, stocks including order/reorder functionality.
A hearty ELN will include LIMS integration because of the complementary — not competitive nature of the resources it manages. This integration eliminates the redundancy of moving from electronic management to manual systems and back again.
Where LIMS have been powerful is in managing R&D information in a structured database. This can place limits on functionality and usefulness particularly when dealing with unstructured data that comes from early-stage R&D work coming from multiple sources. ELNs come in as advantageous in early stage development because of their features where data is securely stored and accessed and selectively shared. Modern systems can handle both unstructured and structured data in an integrated single software platform.
While LIMS have gained mainstream popularity, ELNs have only begun to ramp up in use over the past few years with rapid growth continuing, sometimes one department and lab at a time, and other times across entire organizations.
The use of both ELNs and LIMS have made labs more environmentally friendly and efficient through laboratory automation. ELNs are poised with this integrative workflow to be the final holding space for information and are appealing to labs looking for patent and commercialization of their research. Ease of access and searchability make ELNs in particular a robust data management tool. When ELNs are combined with a strong LIMS (or registration) foundation, together they can provide labs with strong integration tools for competitive growth. The marriage of ELN flexibility and LIMS structure supports many stages of R&D data management with a full range of functions that can evolve and scale with the needs of an organization over time.
Collaborative software platforms blend the best of both systems to offer you a full informatics solution to suit your needs.
How to Choose an ELN
There are clear benefits of moving to an ELN. The benefits include improved data documentation, secure and shareable stored data, comprehensive workflow support, role assignments, import/export features, and greater reproducibility. These benefits directly translate to time and money saving. The efficiency and reproducibility improvements are a boon to science… By now you are likely convinced that ELNs have value. Yet choosing one that is right for you and your lab is a process in itself. It’s a question not of ELN versus science lab notebook paper, but of which ELN is right for you?
The ELN market is expanding and each has features, price points, support, and adoption curves that may make some better or worse for your particular situation. The landscape can be confusing which is one reason why labs have been slower to adopt ELNs then perhaps you would have expected. Rather than getting stuck in endless feature comparisons, it’s a good idea to start out by identifying the non-negotiable “must have” requirements for your particular situation, then seek out the ELNs that fit your needs.
Research scientists are primed for the solution. They are drowning in the volume of complex data that historically was just cut and pasted into lab paper notebooks from multiple sources. Imagine searching across and trying to decipher thousands of those pages from day to day — with penmanship that might make any hope of collaboration impossible.
At the very basic level, the ability to search, copy, archive, share, and export is worth the investment plus the learning curve of adoption. Automated templates add another opportunity for greater ROI. Supervisors gain a full spectrum view of process and progress with the right controls needed to run a tight lab, an efficient ship.
Choosing the right ELN requires appreciating its value — to your own work and to that of the entire lab.
- Look at the needs of your lab. Where are there inefficiencies? How can technology integration help you prioritize what is most important to you and your team? Which capabilities will really help you move the needle? Then do some online research and finally try some ELN systems to see which might fit your needs best. Websites like Capterra independently review ELN software.
- Educate yourself on legal issues. Patent offices in the EU and USA have moved priority dates back from the date of discovery to date of filing. This can help extend the effective lifetime of a patented product. Remote data storage can be restricted or fall under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. Documents needed as evidence and the need for signatures and witnesses are also considerations and features to assess in the ELN.
- Evaluate the history of the ELN company for long-term stability. You want an ELN firm with a proven track record of happy customers. Look for a company that’s at least five years old and ideally one that has been in business for over a decade. Look for reliable tech support, upgrades, maintenance, security, and best software development practices.
- Set up a free trial. Or ask for one if they don’t offer one. You want a clean and logical user interface. You want to try out the features and software integrations. You want to look at customizable/configurable templates and user administration. Try the software to assess how it fits your needs. Collaborative software has the reputation from other labs you trust who go with it. Often, reference customers or existing collaborations already know the best options available.
- Keep ease of use in mind. A user interface that is well designed and intuitive helps decrease the learning curve of the team and increase team adoption by reducing barriers for integration.
Return on Investment for Electronic Lab Notebooks
The primary return on investment (ROI) for researchers is in time. The time savings translate to significant increases in efficiency and overall increased productivity which impacts financial bottom lines. In addition to time savings, collaborative ELNs provide additional opportunities for new discoveries. To paraphrase a famous scientific quote from Louis Pasteur “chance favors the prepared mind”, and with a collaborative ELN “chance favors prepared minds.”
ELNs save time in the following areas:
ELNs reduce wasted time in meeting preparation by organizing data for easy access to monitor timely progress. Having the data readily visible for facile communication makes for better meetings.
For sharing current and historical data without wasting time searching through pages, ELNs allow for time savings with a point and click to share.
Protocols and templates:
ELNs store your data and templates following standard processes. You can update them in real time by making the most current version easily shared. This helps minimize time spent on instruction to lab members, students, and supervisors.
You can plan your laboratory experiments directly within your ELN going beyond just data entry and organization. You can include the full scope of the lab experiment. You can compare results, connect with protocols, and manage inventory for increased reproducibility within an integrated platform.
Many ELNs have functionality that help you plan your lab work and processes into sequences that can be shared with your entire lab via a project management system, bringing your workflow online.
Some ELNs include functionality that allows researchers to create manuscripts by selecting experiments and references to help generate a manuscript quickly and efficiently.
In addition to templates and protocols, ELNs consolidate research notes, experiments, protocols, images, and results for accurate and swift reporting.
Because of how efficiently ELNs store and track information, the tedious job of writing grants is well supported by these systems for adherence to requirements - whether for new grant submission or existing grant compliance.
The ability to select, tag, track, and share data both internally and externally through an ELN gives you more administrative flexibility.
New team member on-boarding and exit controls:
When a new lab member joins the lab, on-boarding is efficient with reduced learning curves and knowledge gaps. Likewise, when a researcher leaves the lab, the ELN can quickly revoke permissions and protect data in the system.
The costs associated with set up and licensing can provide a relatively high value for a low cost for your lab. Consider the TCO (total cost of ownership), including the time investment of learning a new system based upon how intuitive it is to use. ELN vendors can help with moving your data over, and onboarding your team.
Overall, these are relatively small investments compared to the ROI of time and money savings for researchers. Researchers have a need to manage data, projects, inventories and to explore more advanced data mining research functionality.
Many ELNs are customizable to the exact needs of each project and team in ways not even conceivable with handwritten data recording. Real time updates and administrative efficiency produces additional time savings per lab members of measurable hours (as a function of the number of collaborators).
When added up across a team - the return on investment for time alone is profound and usually compelling. The increased productivity and decreased waste of your lab contribute to return on investments that include lab morale and engaged researchers. The vast majority of researchers who adopt ELNs stay with them long-term, following the 1-time set-up.
ELNs Keep Up with the Digital Revolution
The modern process for research and development is digital. As scientists, you consume and produce data digitally far more often than you do in a paper physicalbased way. It is not possible to excel in a digital world while still using a paper- based notebook to store and record your data. Not without wasting precious time in the laborious back and forth between the digital and papephysicalr physical mediums.
Moving to a paperless lab environment is an inevitable trend of the modern scientific process. The benefits include greater data clarity, collaboration software, compliance, increased reproducibility, decreased waste and time efficiency, improved reporting, reliable storage, convenient data exporting, enhanced lab functionality, and scalable management.
Adding the right ELN solution to your lab brings individual productivity, team synergy, and self-management. ELNs provide a competitive advantage by bringing you to the frontier of research, right where you belong.
For an ELN designed with security and collaboration in mind that is fully integrated with a compound registration system, check out CDD Vault.