The first consideration when choosing ELN software is cost. A budding lab may prefer a free ELN on the basis of saving money on paper notebooks, where an established lab may be willing to pay more in order to save time. Proprietary ELNs often have cutting edge features and formal technical support options, but they can be expensive. Open source ELNs often have a more limited selection of features, but they are free to use and typically supported by a dedicated core of users via online forums and listservs.
The price of an electronic lab notebook varies by provider. Generally, a paid ELN service will be offered via monthly subscription. Furthermore, the service may levy per-user fees or a one-time implementation fee. There may be options for customization, at an additional price. Before subscribing, however, determine if access to the ELN is available to former subscribers.
Research today is often the product of collaboration. Data must be securely shared between group members, the PI, and collaborators from outside the lab. Paper lab notebooks are simple: either the original notebook is loaned or a copy made. Electronic lab notebook access can be made available in a variety of ways. Read-only access or editing of data can be allowed for a guest user, depending on the circumstances. Even former group members could be allowed access to view past data. With a variety of customization options, it is possible to tailor an ELN to meet a particular project’s needs.
Generally, an account must be made for any individual to obtain access to an ELN. The lab group’s ELNs may have an administrator, such as the PI or a trusted lab member, oversee access. A “chain-of-command” approach to authorizing access to a lab notebook can be beneficial for notebooks containing sensitive or proprietary information. However, it may be time-consuming for the administrator to oversee other lab notebooks. Alternatively, each user can be the administrator of his or her own notebook and access to its content. This approach provides freedom to each member for fast, simple sharing. However, a “self-administered” lab notebook is more likely to suffer from improper data sharing to a party that should not have been provided access.
Electronic lab notebooks are available with a wide variety of features. The most common features include timestamps, media support, experiment templates, text search, graphing functions, and import/export capabilities, and the ability to interact with MS Office and Adobe Acrobat. ELNs are usually cloud-based, allowing offsite access. Some ELNs even link to external services such as citation managers (Mendeley, Zotero), cloud storage tools (Google Drive, Dropbox), and laboratory inventory management systems. If certain file formats or features are required, be sure to check the software’s specifications before making a final selection.
Discipline-specific ELNs are also available, with special features in support of their discipline’s research needs. The following examples are focused on supporting chemists:
These examples are meant to give an idea of what features are available, rather than a recommendation. Overall, discipline-specific ELNs can be a great option to meet a lab’s needs.