Using an Electronic Lab Notebook

An Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) is a software tool that in its most basic form replicates an interface much like a page in a paper lab notebook. In an ELN you can enter protocols, observations, notes, and other data using your computer or mobile device.

ELNs offer several advantages over traditional paper notebooks, including:

  • facilitate good data management practices
  • provide data security
  • support auditing
  • allow collaboration

Some ELNs can also manage inventories of samples, reagents, and other supplies, as well as keeping track of equipment and equipment maintenance schedules. Additionally, some ELNs provide specialist scientific tools for chemical drawing or molecular biology.

Members of the LMA research community can find specific ELN support services on our "ELNs at LMA" page.

Answering Your ELN Questions

  • How and why do I benefit from using an ELN?

    • ELNs support FAIR Principles (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable), which are recognized by the research community, including the National Institutes of Health
    • They enable oversight by PIs or Core Facility managers
    • Data and documentation can be easily shared with collaborators
    • They eliminate issues with poor handwriting and damaged paper notebooks
    • ELNs can prevent data from being lost when researchers move on
    • Some ELNs can be integrated with Mendeley, Dataverse, and PubMed (and other applications) making publishing and the research process easier
  • How do I overcome difficulties of using computers while performing experiments?

    • Providing dedicated tablets for use by researchers while in the lab
    • Using voice input or optical character recognition (OCR) plugins
    • Utilizing time-saving features like linking experiments to raw data files and results and automatic date and time stamping to prove provenance
    • Integrating the ELN with other research software to capture data and information
  • How do I ensure my data is secure?

    • ELNs generally provide excellent security and auditing features
    • Many ELNs provide compliance with FDA 21 CFR Part 11
    • Utilize 2-factor authentication and keep unique credentials
    • ELN security is only as good as the security protocols that you use in your lab, so ensure you have a data security plan in place
  • How long will setting up an ELN take?

    • It takes time and thought to set up an ELN. Your lab will need to come to a decision on how your data should be organized, and shared.
    • If you make use of Inventory features, it will take time and effort to set up but will save time on linking experiments to samples, managing supplies, and ordering supplies
    • Larger labs or those with large inventories should consider allocating a dedicated Lab Data Manager to this task during the initial setup period

ELN Recommended Practices

  • Top Practices

    General recommendations for keeping a research notebook
    • Choose the right tool (for each lab)
    • Each lab should establish their own Operating Procedures
    • Follow/adjust your institution’s recommended Lab Notebook Best Practices
    • Training should be specifically tailored to meet the team’s requirements
      • Train one lab at a time
      • Avoid blank page syndrome. Narrowing the training down to “these are the typical workflows” helps. Focus on specific needs of the lab.
      • Provide Organization examples – different ways to organize projects.
      • Hold an initial kick-off meeting for each lab, to find out which features are applicable. For example, do they want to use Inventory?
      • Send questionnaire prior to kick-off meeting – identify key users, existing software
      • Make good use of vendor documentation and videos etc.
    • Make thoughtful use of User groups and permissions – who can/should access data?
    • Consider different methods of Notebook Organization
      • By Project or Person – Is there a preferred organizational structure?
        • Allowing both will likely be preferred by researchers, or hybrid organization is also an option.
      • Perhaps only allow administrators to add projects, keeps things organized?
      • Provide Recommended naming standards for Projects, Studies, or Experiments
      • Use keywords or tags to assist with searchability (tags in LabArchives)
    • Use your organization’s standard Best Practices for attached data files – folder organization, file naming, data retention
    • Document witnessing – need policies and procedures for this, who should witness and how soon after completion of the experiment?
    • Archiving Complete immutable experiments after an agreed time
    • Institutions should work with PIs to provide appropriate lab onboarding, which could include group training, key user training, or sample notebooks
    • Researcher Offboarding
      • Making sure the researcher has assigned ownership to PI
      • Remove user access
    • Request enhancements from vendors to improve Platform functionality
      • Can be from individual users or institution, requesting enhancements from product owners on behalf of multiple users carries more weight
  • External Links

    General resources for using research notebooks
  • RDMWG Trainings

    Online classes for the Harvard community