Why Transitioning To An Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) Is A Great Idea

By eLabNext 3 min read 09 Feb 2023

Genomics, proteomics, and other ‘omics technologies have delivered mountains of data and unprecedented insights to life scientists in academia, industry, and government. While powerful, these “big data” techniques have strained some outdated infrastructure, namely the paper lab notebook, for recording, storing, analysing, and distributing information in a laboratory setting.

Take genomics methods, for instance, which generate 10^21 bases per year in sequencing data and approximately 2 to 40 EB (that’s an exabyte; 1 quintillion or 10^18 bytes) per year that needs to be stored. This scale is beyond astronomical: If each byte were an inch long, it would stretch to the moon and back to Earth over 1 billion times. If you add on top of this the digital imaging data and other data-heavy techniques, the mass of data needs to be safe, secure, easily accessible, and sharable (as recommended by good scientific practices and mandated by many funding agencies) becomes overwhelming. 

The Successes and Shortcomings of Paper Lab Notebooks

Despite heavy reliance on digital data, the nucleus for data, metadata, data analysis, protocols, and samples, is the paper lab notebook. Dependence on paper is a significant barrier to scientific progress. Paper and digital data don’t integrate seamlessly. Many researchers are forced into a hybrid existence that leads to data loss, issues with replicability and reproducibility, non-compliance with data-sharing mandates, and more. In fact, the NIH reported that problems with non-reproducibility stem from a lack of suitable documentation methods, many of which are associated with using a paper lab notebook.

So, Why are Paper Lab Notebooks Still Around?

Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELNs), which can offer a software solution for taking notes, data storage, and information organization, provide incredible advantages over paper lab notebooks. 

Yet, many researchers enjoy the freedom of hand-drawing workflows or chemical structures, which can be done while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). There’s also the need to learn a new software program, which can sometimes be complicated, mainly when it’s not intuitive to use and the user experience hasn’t been adequately considered. Ultimately, this leads to a low incentive to change their information management practices or adopt new ones.

3 Advantages of an Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN)

No doubt about it: Changing entrenched habits – even those that create inefficiencies and data loss – is hard.

However, the current data management challenges that many labs face are standing in the way of the scientific advancements enabled by big data. 

ELNs offer an opportunity to improve the status quo, removing impermanent paper notebooks and insecure storage systems.

Reason to use an ELN #1: Promoting Reproducibility

Reproducibility has always been a significant issue in science. Yet, data collection and computation complexity is growing with the increasing reliance on big data, bioinformatics analysis, and many software tools. With it, the potential for additional issues with reproducibility increases. 

ELNs offer a path towards better documentation of research workflows, revision tracking, and data management, helping other researchers repeat experiments in the future, preventing data loss, and enabling an efficient review process for all data.

Reason to use an ELN #2: Improved Accessibility

Ever tried flipping back through your old experiments or someone else’s to find a critical protocol or dataset? Paper lab notebooks make it notoriously difficult to locate historical records. It can be time-consuming to comb through older entries, even if there are user-constructed indexes or a table of contents. 

The benefit of an ELN is that a user can quickly search protocols, entries, samples, or datasets using simple keyword queries, time ranges, metadata tags, or users. This also makes entries easy to re-order and sort, whereas, with a paper lab notebook, you’re locked into chronological ordering. 

Reason #3: Instant Sharability

Collaboration and partnership are part of science; whether working with someone in the same bay or internationally, sharing critical information is necessary. With paper lab notebooks, sharing information with your colleagues is a time-intensive process that involves locating and scanning the applicable entries.

ELNs offer an attractive alternative, bringing Google Doc-like ease to sharing information. View/edit permissions can be granted instantaneously to entries, protocols, and datasets, regardless of geographical location. 

Embrace the Advantages of Electronic Lab Notebooks

ELNs offer many other benefits that can transform laboratory operations and increase productivity. 

Download the “Bringing ‘All Digital’ to Your Lab” whitepaper to learn:

  • Drawbacks of using a hybrid information management system in the life sciences
  • Why going “all digital” now will save you time and money in the long run
  • More benefits to using an ELN for storing and tracking your life science data
  • How eLabJournal can solve your paper lab notebook problems
  • Why Deka Biosciences uses eLabJournal 

Whitepaper: Bringing ‘All Digital’ to Your Lab

Learn more about transitioning your lab from a paper lab notebook to an ELN

Recommended For you

3 min read 11 Jul 2024
By Zareh Zurabyan

Pitfalls of AI in Life Science Laboratories

From data quality to ethical considerations, learn how to navigate AI challenges while optimising integration for enhanced lab operations.

Read more
8 min read 09 Jul 2024
By eLabNext

Our Guide to Optimising Lab Procurement

Learn how to optimise lab procurement as part of a robust inventory management regime. Explore best practices and streamline lab ops.

Read more
10 min read 04 Jul 2024
By Zareh Zurabyan

How Will Systematic AI Use Impact the Biotech Industry?

Learn about key aspects, challenges, and a sustainable path forward for implementing AI in biotech labs.

Read more

Start your journey to an
All Digital Lab today!

Schedule a Personal Demo for friendly expert guidance and a free lab workflow assessment.