An Introduction to Electronic Laboratory Notebooks

Written by: Tina Qin

Primary Source: Digital Scholarship Collaborative Sandbox

The paper notebook that was once a reliable staple in classrooms and laboratories is now losing relevance. This is due to growing piles of paper and the complexity of data we currently deal with. Electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) are becoming an increasingly popular replacement for paper notebooks for research and laboratory work, as a way to optimize workflow and improve collaboration.

To better understand ELNs, we need to know what a lab notebook is and why it is important to keep good records. A lab notebook is a primary research record of procedures, substances used, observations and thoughts relevant to the observations. It typically includes how the experiments are initiated, the necessary background and references, how the experiments were performed, and the results of the experiment. There are ethical and legal concerns to the notebook. It should be accurate, have no missing pages, and should be protected from outside tampering. ELN is a fairly new technology and it expands the concept of the traditional lab notebook into a knowledge repository that allows collaboration and sharing of explicit knowledge. ELNs are becoming an important part of laboratories in industrial settings that produce pharmaceuticals, chemicals and consumer goods, for their ability to support intellectual property protection.

ELN technology has greatly evolved in the past two decades. The combination of Java, JavaScript, and Perl provides a hierarchical structure for organizing entries. ELNs also feature data storage, search, and automatic email notification. The two basic components of ELNs are the interactive browser-based client and the web-server-based notebook server. ELNs are secured by the web server’s authentication mechanism for access control, which can be more secure than the paper counterparts.

CENSA.org defines ELN as “a system to create, store, retrieve and share fully electronic records in ways that meet all legal, regulatory, technical and scientific requirements.” Using this definition, Rubacha[PDF] reviewed and compared some key features from a pool of 35 ELNs in the market today. Beyond the general research note-taking capability, some ELN products target specific audiences working in Quality Assurance/ Quality Control (QA/QC), biology, chemistry, and a number of other disciplines. Some ELNs have the ability to toggle between two or more features. For example, CambridgeSoft IDBS is flexible and scalable enough to serve multidisciplinary research environments and is suitable for small or large organizations. Sciformation Electronic Lab Notebook, on the other hand, tailors the functionality to chemistry laboratories. Analytical data from chemical experiments are crucial to calculate reaction yields. Instrument data can be accessed through network shares, FTP, etc. and stored in appropriate places.

A recent survey from NYU asked participants from research labs about their experience with ELNs. All survey participants used ELNs for the feature of “accessibility from any computer with internet”, 75% expressed their concern that ELNs “can’t draw or freehand into an entry”, and 50% addressed ELNs “inflexible or rigid format”. Flexibility and ease of making entries were the top reasons for continuing to use paper notebooks.

By taking advantage of electronic lab records, ELNs make a step in the right direction. In the future, we may expect to see systems changing to meet the evolution of R&D workflow, and features that support data analysis and knowledge management. Although the switch to electronic records has been slow for non-profit laboratories, multiple ELN options will likely make transition more feasible as time moves on.

Tina Qin

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Tina Qin
Tina Qin is the Chemistry Librarian at MSU Libraries, where she manages the chemistry collection, leads information literacy sessions in the sciences, supports science data management and works at the reference desk. She began this professional position in August 2013 after completing a Master of Library Science degree with a chemical information specialization from Indiana University in July, 2013. Her undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering is from Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, P.R. China. She also holds a MS degree in Paper and Chemical Engineering from Miami University, Oxford OH