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Modern Electronic Laboratory Notebooks
Deep Dive

Modern Electronic Laboratory Notebooks

The laboratory notebook is among the most basic and essential tools for research and development, from initial experimentation to product realization. Whether used for simple data recording or as legally significant evidence, laboratory notebooks are ubiquitous and fundamental to research science.

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While the traditional, physical laboratory notebook has sufficed for many decades, the digital revolution has brought a need and capability for improvements. Such improvements to the laboratory notebook have been realized with the development of electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs), which provide functionalities such as superior security, accessibility and shareability.

This shift to ELNs from the traditional laboratory notebook was first anticipated nearly three decades ago but has only recently begun to see large scale adoption as many of the previous barriers are lowered. ELNs offer functionalities well beyond simple data recording and features including protocol templates, collaboration tools, and other electronic support tools.

What Is an Electronic Laboratory Notebook (ELN)?

Electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) are software tools designed to replicate and improve upon the interface of traditional laboratory notebooks. ELNs allow for the entering of data, protocols, and notes using most electronic devices.

ELNs offer several advantages compared to their physical counterpart because they:

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Facilitate safe and productive data management practices by supporting data security, auditing, and collaboration.

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Offer other management tools, including those for laboratory chemical inventories and supplies, as well as for equipment management and scheduling.

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Provide specialist tools for applications in subjects ranging from organic chemistry to molecular biology.

Consolidation and Centralization

Unlike a physical laboratory notebook, ELNs are centralized and consolidated. Rather than having multiple notebooks that need to be stored, secured, and accessed individually, ELNs function as a single location for interacting with laboratory data and protocols. This makes data sharing and accessibility easier and more efficient.

There are also benefits to chemical inventory and lab supply management, including samples, reagents, and order tracking.

Clarity and Organization

In addition to centralization and consolidation, ELNs benefit from their greater clarity and organization. Unlike traditional laboratory notebooks that rely on clear documentation and vary in structure and flow, ELNs are designed with an easy and semi-standardized structure so that all recorded data and protocols are neat and clear.

Searchability, Shareability, and Reusability

ELNs benefit from searchability and reusability, allowing users to quickly and easily search for desired information, rather than flipping through the pages of a physical lab notebook or relying on a sufficiently organized table of contents. The digital recording over time allows for multiple users to access the same data simultaneously and to do so repeatedly without delay for other users or damage to any information. Data and documentation is easily shared with laboratory members and collaborators.

Safety and Security

ELNs offer significant improvement in safety and security as compared to physical laboratory notebooks. Unlike a traditional laboratory notebook, physical security procedures are required to protect and preserve.

The physical laboratory notebook is dependent on clear handwriting and an intelligible system for recording data. For example, something as simple and frustratingly common as a chemical spill may destroy a laboratory notebook containing months or years of work, making any given experiment a serious liability.

Most laboratory notebooks are during the lifetime the possession of an individual researcher and are often taken or lost following their departure.

Additionally, because of the variation in documentation style between researchers, it can be difficult to make use of physical notebooks even when they are left behind for future use. ELNs help prevent this data from being lost in such circumstances, and they are stored in centralized digital systems.

Principles of FAIR Data

ELNs subscribe to FAIR data principles, which requires the data to be findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable (FAIR). These principles are recognized and encouraged by much of the research community across disciplines and are often considered advantageous against open data.

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Supervision and Oversight

ELNs enable supervision by PIs or core facility managers, which is often desired by leadership and necessary for productive workflow and management.

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Software Integration

Many ELNs offer integration with commonly employed laboratory software such as Mendeley, making the research and development process even easier and more accessible.

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Mobility and Flexibility

ELNs are often used with a personal or laboratory computer, but some users prefer using ELN products with a mobile device.

Another consideration is the capacity for software integration, with links and integration to other regularly used software often being a critical consideration for many researchers. This may include instrument software, software-development platforms, and reference managers.

How to Use ELNs

Learning use establish and use ELNs can be challenging. Like traditional lab notebooks, ELNs offer an easy user experience.

Modern ELNs are designed to have a comparably intuitive and simple user experience as that of common documentation software. Notes, procedures, and protocol are entered or imported to a centralized computer system, rather than being written down within a physical notebook. Access to this type of centralized computer system only requires an internet connection and internet connected device, whether it be a personal computer, phone, or tablet.

While ELNs are designed with a simple user experience in mind, they still require time and care to establish ELNs in a laboratory. Each laboratory is required to decide how best to organize and share data, especially when using inventory features.

While initially challenging, the time and effort taken to establish an ELN will save on time and energy in all future research and development at all stages.

ELN Best Practices

With the prevalence of ELNs on the rise, larger scale use has led to a set of best practices. The first is simply to choose the right tools and establish tailored operating procedures for a specific laboratory, as well as institution.

Data Security of ELNs

The laboratory notebook is far more than simply a temporary home for scientific data, protocol, and notes. The laboratory notebook is a legal document that functions as formal evidence when filing patents or making other forms of intellectual property claims.

Using a physical laboratory notebook means using physical security methods, such as locking away notebooks when not in use. Not only does this rarely happen in practice, with most laboratory notebooks being left open and vulnerable, but it also means that they are inaccessible when not physically located with them.

One type of common digital tool that is used to supplement the lab notebook, most often for data and results sharing and storage, are online databases. While familiar and convenient, they lack the superior accessibility and security of ELNs.

ELNs provide a secure means of housing and sharing data and protocols electronically, providing them more security and shareability. This has extended into regulation, where the FDA encourages organizations to submit entirely electronic copies of documents, beginning over two decades ago when electronic records are legally comparable to handwritten ones. This ruling allowed for the large-scale adoption of electronic research notebooks, which was only further promoted by the myriad of other digital solutions.

However, to ensure that such adoption was introduced and maintained safely, the FDA also requires stricter guidelines for ELNs, particularly for medical and pharmaceutical companies. These standards require meticulous documentation of processes used for data security. This includes processes involving electronic signatures, audits, and modification tracking at all levels throughout an organization, and become more rigorous at level stages of product development.

ELN security is ultimately only as good as the laboratory protocols, making it critical to have a suitable data security plan irrespective of the security of the ELNs themselves.

Data Accessibility

ELNs can be broadly divided into two categories:

  • ELNs hosted on external servers

  • ELNs hosted with on-premise environments

This difference affects many security and shareability needs. There are many more specific differences between the two, including in terms of economics, scalability, collaboration, convenience, security, and more.

For most users and applications, hosted solutions are employed. Hosted servers have been the more popular storage option due to its many advantages, with one of the most notable being cost considerations. Hosted servers require no set-up costs as well as trivial maintenance fees, making it cheaper and more convenient than hosting on-premise. Beyond cost considerations, hosted servers also make anything stored and managed with ELNs optimally accessible, as data, protocols, and documents can be easily accessed by anyone and anywhere. A third dominant reason for the choice in hosted servers is very large uptime, making little to no impediments to making use of server hosted ELNs.

While hosted ELNs offer many great benefits, they also suffer from several pitfalls as compared to those hosted on-premise.

First, data is stored in shared server space even if held separately, which is often considered to be a security risk.
Second, access to ELNs is reliant on consistent internet access at all points along the line, which can affect the overall accessibility.
Lastly, the security of data is predicated on the competency and effectiveness of the security practices of the organization providing the hosting services.

Hosting on premise primarily benefits from a higher degree of control and oversight, often making it a safer option capable of being tailored precisely for ones needs. However, on-premise hosting suffers from being more expensive, demanding, and vulnerable to many issues that may take it offline.

Choosing an ELN

While ELN adoption was predicted as early as the 1990s, only recently have previous barriers begun to brake, and large-scale adoptions of ELNs begun to be realized. The primary barrier to adoption at scale is now the ever-increasing number of options available, which is often a deterrent for integration.

With so many ELN products available and with such a variety of functionality, it can be difficult to understand exactly what benefits ELNs offer and which solution is most suitable for your specific needs in terms of data recording, analysis, and presentation.

Steps for Choosing an Electronic Lab Notebook Solution

Choosing the most suitable ELN solution requires taking several steps:

The first step

The first step is to learn about the ELN market and understand the varying user interfaces and functionality available. This information includes costs, support, and data storage, which vary widely over the dozens of ELNs now on the market.

The second step

The second step is to determine costs, as while ELNs often offer free versions with limited usability, most often payment is required to access the necessary range of features and services. Most ELNs cost on the order of tens to hundreds of dollars a month. There are also open-source options available, which have their own advantages and disadvantages.

The third step

The third step, which is often overlooked, is to understand and evaluate legal issues. Funders may often place various restrictions on where and how data is stored. Choose ELN software that enables the ability to lock and electronically sign if documents are needed for the defense against claims of fraud or for submission to the FDA for regulatory purposes. Similarly, electronically signed documents may also be used as evidence in patent disputes.

The fourth step

The next step in choosing an ELN is an evaluation of stability, as researchers are likely to want to remain with the ELN solution for an extended period. Evaluate the likelihood of an ELN product surviving in the market. A general rule of thumb is to choose a product that has at least several years of experience, has demonstrated stable sources of funding, and assures users that data will be accessible in the event the company is to no longer exist.

Like many other products or services, try using a ELN software prior to committing to its purchase and utilization. Even if many of the most desirable functionality is locked behind a paywall, trying the free versions is an excellent way to get a sense of the solution's user experience and better gauge its suitability for your organization.

Similarly, its suggested to include more generic platforms in the search for the right ELN. Many scientists and researchers prefer a more generic note-taking platform, prioritizing cost and ease of use over the many bells and whistles available in some of the more premium ELN products.

Ultimately, determining the most suitable ELN will depend on the following circumstances:

  • First identify any problematic operational aspects of the lab to understand what benefit each ELN may have for you. This will also incorporate factoring in legal requirements and compliances, as in some cases may be required to record, report, or share data and protocols in a particular manner. There are many ELNs on offer, and its important to choose one that has a history of safe and quality product.

  • Lastly, aside from seeking the most suitable functionality, the most important aspect is in ease of use.

Preparing for Future Technologies

In a world becoming ever more digital and connected, having easy integration to new and emerging technologies is paramount to remaining competitive and optimizing performance. Scientists now use and produce data in digital formats far more frequently than in traditional physical ways, which only becomes more true year on year.

Introducing ELN solutions to a laboratory offers many varying benefits, saving time, costs, and performance.

Researchers, even those more comfortable with using similar digital tools, may find it difficult to commit to a digital platform for their laboratory notebooks. While the hesitation is easily understood, committing to change and taking the time to learn how to make use of these tools is likely to make large improvements to the overall quality of work.

With a new generation of researchers who have grown accustomed to digital tools since childhood, ELNs are likely to grow increasingly prevalent. This is compounded by the trend to produce increasingly large quantities of data, making previous methods of data recording obsolete. Increasingly stringent requirements for reproducibility and data management from funding agencies have motivated improvements in documenting laboratory work, expanding the ELN market to include additional tools including cloud-based products and similar tools that require little to no IT support for installation and maintenance. Those who have already made the switch have seen the myriad of positive impacts provided by ELNs, touting the ease of searching, copying, and archiving data.

Additionally, templates provided by ELNs remove the need to rewrite protocols, and researchers can link experiments to specific meta data, as well as easily share information with relevant personnel to facilitate reproducibility.

ELNS are much more than a digitized laboratory notebook, but is an altogether more useful, robust, and dynamic system for recording scientific data.

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