Electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) were first proposed as a replacement for paper records in the laboratory in the early 90s. The primary goal of ELNs was to capture large amounts of experimental data that could be stored securely and would be infinitely easier to search compared to paper records. In addition to better accessibility, ELNs provided an additional benefit—automated audits of lab records for the authentication process necessary to file patents or obtain FDA approval.
Over the last two decades, ELNs have become increasingly necessary to cohesively capture the very large volumes of data produced by automated lab instruments. In addition to lab automation—the rapidly decreasing cost of DNA sequencing has created an influx of genomic data that requires both structured and scalable informatics systems. The chart below shows Moore's law of ever decreasing cost of DNA sequencing. To manage the high volume of data triggered by lower cost, the use of lab informatics management software, including ELNs will become critical.
The rapidly decreasing cost of sequencing DNA. Image courtesy:DNA Sequencing Costs Data (genome.gov)
Laboratory Notebook Considerations
Paper laboratory notebooks have been a staple of the scientific process since the 1600s, some of the oldest records include notebooks kept by scientists like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. The practice of handwriting lab observations is also the primary pedagogical method taught in high school, undergraduate and most graduate schools.
Currently there are a wide variety of ELNs available that offer scientists the ability to capture, analyze, track and query laboratory records. In my experience, from working with clients at Dotmatics, the choice of ELN is dictated by business rules of the organization, budget, ease of use of the software and its scalability.
ELN User Adoption
But an important factor that many organizations might not account for early on is user adoption. All too often, organizations face loss of time and resources when dealing with incomplete or unsuccessful adoption of ELNs by lab scientists. While adoption can be indirectly related to the ease of use of the software, successful adoption requires a multi-pronged approach. The two main drivers of adoption tend to be:
A rewarding experience for the scientist – ease of use, higher efficiency, better access to their data (i.e. the carrot)
Policy changes at the organization level or regulatory compliance (i.e. the stick)
In most successful instances of user adoption both the carrot and the stick must be employed. The changes in institutional policies and adherence to regulatory requirements are fairly straightforward. So, what can organizations do to improve ELN user adoptability by their lab employees?
First, improve the usability of ELNs with the use of shared experimental templates, widgets that add efficiency to the workflow (e.g. modules for quick calculations or unit conversions and lab timers).
Next, create knowledge sharing communities: the availability of both physical and digital spaces to share information. This can include office hours, a shared wiki, or Atlassian Confluence page. Support integrations across web-based and desktop applications to make data easier to store and share.
Finally, ensure ease of access; make the ELN available on multiple platforms like laptops, tablets, and mobile devices.
The transition to digital lab records has the potential to greatly improve the process of science and enablement of scientific discoveries. The FAIR data principles dictate that scientific information must be findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable. The wider adoption of ELNs contributes to the effort to make life sciences data FAIR and can ultimately lead to accelerated data literacy and innovation in the life sciences.