You know the feeling – hundreds of notes scattered throughout different notebooks. Scribbling inside textbooks, jotting down ideas on sticky notes, and formulating lists and plans on the back of a napkin. What is the solution to this disorganized chaos?

An electronic lab notebook.

From the beginning of the era of research, the goal has not only been to discover but to communicate, not just to investigate but to record and study. A lab notebook enables researchers to do just that, and it is a powerful aid to the furtherance of their study. A considerable number of people agree that a lab notebook should be kept in a similar way to a diary of activities, to record research in enough detail that other scientists would be able to replicate and follow the research themselves.

Nowadays, electronic lab notebooks are growing in popularity. This is especially useful for larger teams and companies where collaboration is essential. Especially after the pandemic when there was such a massive transition over to virtual workplaces over physical facilities, the use of electronic lab notebooks grew as it enabled team members to continue doing their jobs remotely.

While many traditional researchers may lack the time and motivation to switch over to ELNs, today’s younger researchers have grown up in the age of technology and more readily embrace electronic solutions. One study found that 40% of researcher’s time is spent on administrative tasks, taking them away from the main purpose of their role. An ELN will really be worth the time and energy when you can use that time for the right things!

What is an ELN?

An electronic lab notebook, or ELN, is the modern answer to the researcher’s problem. They can be categorized into two specific groups:

  • Specific ELNS – these have features that work in a specific scientific field and are designed to work with specific applications, instruments, or data types.
  • Cross-disciplinary ELNS/Generic ELNs – these are designed to work with all types of data and information that would need to be recorded in a lab notebook.

The objective of a successful lab notebook is to provide a secure environment to protect the data and processes recorded within it. ELNs can have the added protection of cyber security against the many things that might threaten their integrity.

Advantages of ELNs

Unlike the paper versions of lab notebooks, the electronic format is easier to search through, copy information, and archive. With the availability of templates, researchers are not required to rewrite protocols every time they need them. You can add links to other resources, attach samples and files and easily share the information with other collaborators. Additionally, the notes are accessible to the supervisors who can oversee the work and progress of their team remotely. According to one expert, the advantages of ELNs can be categorized into four areas:

  • Productivity – because the workflow can be automated and data can be effortlessly exchanged, productivity increases significantly.
  • Usability – many ELNs offer a comprehensive set of tools that assist the research process. For example, anomalistic results are identified, and the writer is alerted.
  • Compliance – there are many legal aspects to consider when any lab notebook is being collated, so ELNs save you time and stress by offering the tools needed to defend your data if the need arose.
  • Intellectual Property – when it comes to cases over intellectual property, ELNs offer the ability to give you a “pedigree” for the data you have worked hard to collect.

Disadvantages of ELNs

As with everything, there are some downsides too. When it comes to deciding whether to transition over to the technological side, it’s a case of weighing up the pros and cons and seeing if the move would be good for you personally. Although there are free ELNs on the market, these usually come with some restrictions as to the number of users, the available data storage, or file size. If you decide to leave one software provider and switch to another, you can often only get a .pdf export of your data which you wouldn’t be able to transfer to your new system. Furthermore, disruptions to the power or internet could mean you have a temporary restriction to your data and if some researchers in your team still prefer to take physical notes, these will have to be entered into the system manually.

How to Make the Best Choice

After considering the pros and cons, there are a few steps that users suggest taking when making the decision about the software that will suit your needs.

  • Research. Use some third-party, unbiased sources to investigate the different software solutions to find the one that will suit you.
  • Budget. A paid ELN service can cost between $10-and $20 every month. Think about what your team can afford in relation to the features that you will need.
  • Investing in the provider’s stability and their chances of survival. Find a company that is reliable and well established so they can provide you with the most secure option now and for years to come.
  • Take some free versions of a variety of products for a test drive and see what you find easiest to use. Think about how it will fit with your company in a real-life situation.
  • The change might feel like a big one, but for it to be successful you need to be committed. You need to take the plunge and fully immerse yourself in this new and exciting option for the modern researcher. Your passion and enthusiasm will be contagious. You’ll have a positive effect on the rest of your team who will more likely convert to the new idea too, and when you’re all on the same page it makes for a successful and effective team. You’ll be surprised what your positive attitude can do to change the minds of even the most traditional members of your lab.