Replacing Paper: Tips for Choosing an Electronic lab Notebook

By Guest Blogger

sciNote ELN

This post was contributed by guest blogger, Tea Pavlek, Product Marketing Manager at sciNote.

Today, every lab has its own habits and approaches to record keeping. Top priorities in most cases include IP protection, publications and funding. If any of these three pillars crashes, the lab's success and the careers of its researchers are on the line.

With these priorities in mind, many researchers go to great lengths to keep accurate records, but given the complexities of modern research, it’s often not enough. A 2013 study showed that out of 238 published scientific articles, only 46% could be reproduced. In a recent Nature report from researchers at Amgen, it was stated that only 11% of the academic research in the literature was reproducible by their groups. Finally results from the Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology have shown similarly disappointing rates of reproducibility. These alarming results are due, at least in part, to insufficient and non-standard record keeping despite scientist’s best efforts.

We all have software tools that help us efficiently accomplish our daily goals. These tools remind us of our daily tasks, make our days more effective, and our schedules more organized. From the alarm in the morning, to the daily news briefing, to quick notes, to finances, to flights & ordering food - everything is covered.  

So why are we still printing and gluing pieces of paper in notebooks, and hoping that we don’t forget to write things down when doing scientific research?

Electronic lab notebooks and researcher's needs

The familiar paper-based lab notebook is still a standard approach to record-keeping in many labs. In a way, it will always be a part of everyday work to capture ideas, write down certain notes or brainstorm, but we have to admit that paper-based record keeping barely copes with the growing amounts of digital data generated in labs.

While many labs approach the situation differently, some adopting simple note-taking tools, others using excel sheets or organizing folders in complex ways, there are solutions that bring more to the table in terms of data traceability and reproducibility of research.

Electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are here to make lab work much more reproducible, convenient and effective, in both academic circles as well as in industry. The news is good.

In their ideal form, ELNs provide users with a holistic means to manage their work, combining data, team, inventory and project management functionalities with experiment records. Many different types of ELNs are available on the market today, ranging from general note taking tools, to more scientific field-based solutions or open source solutions. In comparison to paper-based record keeping, ELNs offer functionalities that are hard to imagine on paper, such as instant search through all saved data and automated writing of reports.

To be able to understand the situation in depth and provide the solution that fits the most labs, our team conducted a large study which focused on the adoption of ELNs in labs and included hundreds of researchers. The full story is available here.

Our questions focused on researchers’ current practices, their opinions towards ELNs, and their desired functionalities i.e. main priorities of different ELN features, ranging from whether respondents saw them as not important to very important.

In addition, we also explored the barriers to adoption within academic environments to better understand the issues labs are facing in terms of budget and ease of use of the software.

We identified that when talking about ELN costs and limited budgets, “a large percentage of survey respondents indicated that cost was a significant barrier to ELN adoption. This includes financial outlay, staff hours, troubleshooting, and the fact that long-term use is likely to require on-going maintenance and support.” Besides that, academic institutions tend to think about the long term, so they need a solution for which they are sure that there will be no sharp changes in costs once they establish the system within their institution.

In the study, respondents were also asked about how important ease of use is for them (if they are to switch from paper to digital for example): “… 99% of respondents indicated that ease of use would influence their ELN choice, with almost 80% rating it as very important. One comment reflected the desire for a flexible generic solution, rather than an ELN designed for a specific research area, due to anxieties that their research ‘doesn’t fit neatly into one category;”.

The study also showed that It is important that an ELN supports all types of data, which enables researchers to store everything in one place. From pictures to excel sheets, researchers today generate vast amounts of digital data during their work. It is already becoming impossible to keep track of it all in paper notebooks.

Following these findings, we defined the priorities for future ELN development and developed the SciNote Electronic Lab Notebook.

Implementing an electronic lab notebook starts with defining your lab’s needs

The values of ELNs show in the long run as they enable researchers to keep all their data in one place and avoid scattering intellectual property across various software providers used to supplement their paper notebooks. Instead, all of the important information is consolidated to one place, easily retrievable, searchable and traceable.

However, switching from paper to an electronic lab notebook requires time and knowledge. In a recent article, we translated our knowledge of electronic lab notebooks into 9 questions that will help you start and define what exactly your lab needs from an ELN (the full article is available here):  

Does your lab need to keep paper records as well as electronic ones?

It is important to know in which ways your data can be exported or printed from the ELN when needed. Whether it is because you need to keep paper records as well as digital, or for reporting on a project – printing your data out can be required every once in a while, so it is good to make sure you’ll be able to do it when needed.

How many people from your lab would use the ELN i.e. do you need a system that will support your lab’s growth in the near future?

As most payable software solutions have user-based pricing, it is good to know how many of your lab members will use the ELN. If your lab is planning to grow in the upcoming years, it is also good to check how the ELN will support that. In addition, if you are working for a large institution or company, site licenses might be available as well. In most cases this applies to universities.

How are you currently exchanging information with your team?

If you need to exchange information regarding lab work with your colleagues, supervisors, clients or even students, your ELN should allow you to collaborate within the platform and avoid countless emails. Important collaborative functionalities include comments, notifications, sharing files, assigning team members to certain tasks, etc.

How is security and user access to data defined within your lab?

In every lab, there are certain hierarchies and restrictions to data access. If these are important in your lab, you should make sure your ELN allows you to assign specific permissions to different lab members to avoid any issues later on.

Do you need external teams or partners to access your data?

If you are collaborating with other labs or clients, you might need share data with them including reports and protocols. To facilitate this, some ELNs allow you to invite people and assign them roles and permission that only enable them to see the necessary information.

Does your lab need to meet any specific compliance requirements – e.g. 21 CFR part 11, HIPAA?

Answering this question helps you evaluate whether the ELN should have functionalities such as: electronic signatures, electronic witnessing and audit trails.

How does the ELN provider protect and respect your IP rights and data ownership?

IP and data ownership should be yours (your institution’s), so make sure you don’t use ELN providers that take any ownership over your data or have direct access to it. Your data should be kept private and accessible to your team members only, under the specific permissions set for every member of your team.

Do you need to make sure your research can be patented? I.e. is automated time stamping (detailed records on who did what and when) important to you?

Some ELNs record the times and dates of your actions. These records can take the form of written comments, added files, notes etc. Detailed records about every action performed in the lab (user, date, time, action) are required for regulatory purposes in many labs. Besides this being of crucial importance when applying for a patent for example, it also comes in handy if a supervisor wants to see the full activity on a project.

Can you meet the ELN support team?

We cannot stress enough how important this is when deploying an ELN (or any software solution) in your lab. With their many functionalities, it can be difficult to figure out all the ways a given ELN can make your lab life easier. If you can talk to an ELN support team directly, they should be able to walk you through your ELN’s features and this interaction will give you an idea of how responsive and supportive the ELN team is.

Once you’ve made your list of ELNs, create some free or demo accounts and schedule online meetings with the support teams behind them. 


Researchers spend 40% of their time on tedious administrative tasks that drain resources from the actual research process.

It does take time and effort to implement an ELN, but on the long run, ELNs enable labs to keep their data in one place and therefore make it easier for them to track and find data and information. If an employee leaves the institution, the transition is smooth as all data is organized within an ELN already.

Investing some time in deploying a software solution that makes it much easier for lab members to manage and organize their work at every step of the research process will save them significant amounts of time and effort and give the lab a serious competitive advantage. 

Many thanks to our guest blogger, Tea Pavlek, Product Marketing Manager at sciNote.

Tea Pavlek is a Product Marketing Manager at SciNote, interested in combining scientific research with tech advances. You an follow SciNote on Twitter @scinoteELN

Additional Resources on the Addgene Blog

Resources on the Addgene Blog

Topics: Scientific Sharing, Reproducibility

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