What is an electronic notebook and why should I choose one?

Lab notebooks are a way for researchers to remember vital information about their research through an organised and systematic manner. They may be considered part of your research data and will need to be archived along with your other data. If it already in digital form this will be easier to archive over handwritten notes.

ELNs serve a variety of purposes including:

  • Documenting key information about your research and experiments
  • Enabling sharing throughout your lab group
  • Serving as evidence in legal matters such as patents or disputes
  • Ensuring the longevity of your research

Traditionally lab notebooks have been handwritten but as technology advances there are many advantages to using an ELN over a traditional handwritten notebook.

Typical functionality of most ELNs that handwritten notes can’t do are:

  • Allow you to add text, data, images, and equations
  • Built-in search functions
  • Ability to link out
  • Create accounts and permission levels
  • Create stable URLs or persistent identifiers

Which is the best ELN for me?

There is a huge variety of ELNs out there. They can offer a range of functions and some can be customised to suit your needs. If you are thinking of moving to using ELNs going forward, you may want to consider making a list of the minimum requirements that you would like the ELN to have in order to make the move. Here are some examples of requirements to think about:

  • Trustworthiness – can you rely on using an externally provided service? Can you trust that your data will be safe here?
  • Sharing abilities – This is a common feature of a lot of ELNs but you might have specific sharing needs that need to be addressed. For example, with external collaborators
  • Integration – can you integrate all your required file formats into one system?
  • Portability – How easily can you gain access to someone else’s ELN if they leave the lab group
  • Stability – How likely is it that the chosen system will last the duration of the project or beyond if you have archiving requirements.

The College does not support one ELN system as research labs are unique settings that vary from discipline to discipline and even within disciplines needs can be hugely different. If you want a starting point to find some examples a useful resource comparing different ELNs has been developed by the Harvard Medical School. This resource contains information about general ELNs as well as medical ELNs.

Here are some additional things to consider when choosing to use an ELN:

  • Some only work via internet connection which may not be as secure
  • Your lab may not allow electronic devices to enter/ leave the room
  • There may not be enough power outlets to ensure electronic devices are charged
  • You may need to build in time to train people in using a new system
  • How easily can you import and export files if you need to change ELN system
  • There may be costs involved for using an ELN or for additional devices

As there is no College recommended ELN this allows for the freedom to choose a system that you are comfortable with. Your lab leader and department will be able to help you with the content of your lab notebooks whether handwritten or ELN as there may be standard protocols to follow. Keeping good metadata via lab notebooks is part of good data management practices, you may want to consult our RDM webpages for more information relating to this subject.