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Electronic Lab Notebooks: ELN Considerations

This guide covers the basics of Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs), including their uses and features.

Cost

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.

Data Collection & Analysis

Increasingly, ELNs are offering resources for basic data analysis. Common analysis tools include performing calculations and graphing of raw data within the ELN. If a lab’s needs are more specialized, a separate application is likely necessary. Alternatively, if a group member has talent for programming or the lab is willing to pay for a custom feature, a specialized “widget” may be incorporated into an open source ELN. In general, however, an ELN should not be expected to perform complex analysis.

Access & Sharing

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.

Specific Features

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:

  • E-WorkBook 10 from IDBS pulls spectral, chromatographic, and curve data directly into the lab notebook from the data analysis program Spectrus.
  • Core ELN offers easy import from ChemDraw for professional looking chemical structures.
  • eLabFTW, a free and open source option, can show attached mol files and other structure files and provides a molecule drawing tool.

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.

Data Security

Often, research requires the use of sensitive information. An ELN can be more secure or less secure than a paper notebook depending on the protections in place. Features promoting data security include encryption, an on-site server, password protection, limited user access to the ELN, minimal-to-no cloud storage, and VPN usage. Whether the information is related to private data on human subjects (HIPAA, FERPA, Common Rule), data collected for a government contract, or chemical/biological agents that would be dangerous if “leaked” (ITAR, EAR), the U.S. federal government protects a variety of sensitive and restricted material by law. It is essential to consider data safeguards for any ELN used for these and other protected purposes. Some laws specify the minimum safeguards that need to be in place, others do not. Even if your lab’s research is not regulated by the government, data safeguards are still a good idea, given the competitive nature of academic research and intellectual property.

Intellectual Property

With the enactment of the America Invents Act in 2013, the United States shifted from a “first-to-invent” patent system to a “first-to-file” patent system. Exactly as it sounds, the right to patent an invention belongs to the first person to file the application. However, this does not make lab notebooks, whether electronic or paper, obsolete. Lab notebooks are still used to determine inventorship and prior user rights. Furthermore, in a scenario where an invention was derived from another individual’s work without authorization, lab notebooks can help a petitioner provide evidence in a derivation proceeding. For these purposes, an ELN should provide legally recognized authentication features such as secure logins, audit trails, and timestamps to prove inventorship.