6 Reasons Not to Use Microsoft OneNote as an ELN (and What to Use Instead)

By Chris Austin 4 min read 14 Sep 2023

“Why can’t I just use Microsoft OneNote as an electronic lab notebook (ELN)?”

It’s a question we hear a lot at eLabNext from various future customers who have made their very first steps on their digital journey. This question is often quickly followed by the question, “Why would we pay more money for an ELN or laboratory sample information storage (LIMS) system if OneNote or Excel can do it?”

Yes, some in our scientific community have adopted the note-taking software OneNote (and other Microsoft programs like Excel) for data acquisition, presentation, sharing, and more.1 Some even prefer the functionalities of OneNote to ELNs designed for laboratory environments.2

For the basic functions, you may prefer OneNote, but if you need to optimise your laboratory processes or ensure compliance in several different regulatory environments as you scale and move into biotech or pharma manufacturing, then please read on to learn why OneNote is not an adequate solution for biotech start-ups, academic institutions, or even larger biotechs, CROs or pharmaceutical companies.

In the blog below, we’ll show why you might prefer an ELN dedicated to the scientific process over OneNote and save you from future data migration or compliance challenges.

1. Scientific-Specific Features

ELNs are designed with scientific research in mind, offering specialised features tailored to laboratory workflows. They often include functionalities such as experimental templates, structured data entry, integration with other laboratory software and instructions, metadata capture, and data analysis capabilities. These features are essential for effectively organising and analysing scientific data, which may not be present or as comprehensive in OneNote. Microsoft offers templates for the note-taking program; however, these take additional effort to implement and tailor for specific scientific applications. With an ELN dedicated to science, there is a framework built around the storage, retrieval, and sharing of protocols, samples, data, metadata, and more.

2. Regulatory Compliance

Biotech research often involves compliance with regulatory guidelines, such as Good Laboratory or Manufacturing Practices (GLP / GMP) and 21 CFR Part 11. Electronic lab notebooks are specifically developed to meet these regulatory requirements, offering features like electronic signatures, data versioning, audit trails, and controlled access permissions. These compliance-focused features are essential for ensuring data integrity and meeting regulatory standards. These are lacking in OneNote and require customisation or workarounds (e.g., there is no electronic signature capability in OneNote).

3. Data Organization and Search

ELNs provide structured data organisation, allowing you to categorise and tag experiments, samples, and related information. This structured approach enables efficient data search, retrieval, and cross-referencing, making it easier to find specific experiments or data points. OneNote offers basic organisation features but does not provide the same level of flexibility and search capabilities specific to scientific research.

4. Collaboration and Teamwork

Biotech research often involves collaboration among internal team members and with external partners. Electronic lab notebooks offer collaboration features that facilitate real-time collaboration, data sharing, and commenting within the context of specific experiments or projects. ELNs allow multiple users to work simultaneously, track changes, and maintain a complete record of collaboration activities. While OneNote does support collaboration, it may not provide the same granularity and integration with laboratory workflows as ELNs. For instance, OneNote doesn’t allow sharing a single entry, so if you need to share one section with an external collaborator, you’ll need to start a new ELN with just the entries you want to share in them.

5. Integration with Laboratory Instruments and Software

ELNs can often integrate with laboratory instruments and other scientific software tools. This integration allows direct data transfer from instruments to the ELN, eliminating manual transcription and reducing the chances of errors. It also enables seamless integration with bioinformatics tools, data analysis platforms, and research data management systems. Two great examples of this at eLabNext are with Implen NanoPhotometer and Elemental Machines temperature (humidity, pressure, and light) monitoring for your samples. On the other hand, OneNote does not offer the same level of integration and interoperability with scientific instruments and software (at the time of writing this article, August 2023).

6. Data Security and Intellectual Property Protection

ELNs typically provide advanced data security measures, including user authentication, access controls, encryption, and secure cloud storage options. These security features are essential for protecting sensitive research data and intellectual property. While OneNote offers some security features, ELNs are specifically designed with data protection in mind and may provide more robust security measures for scientific research data. eLabnext is ISO 27001 accredited and is the most secure laboratory software on the market today.

Why Use Software Designed For a Different Task…

…when eLabNext’s ELN is specifically designed for the life science laboratory? Microsoft OneNote is a practical, general-purpose note-taking application.

However, ELNs offer specialised features and capabilities specifically designed for scientific research workflows and compliance requirements.

Would you use a screwdriver to hammer in a nail?

Let the note-taking programs be used for note-taking, and the ELNs, for streamlining the life sciences.

If your biotech start-up focuses on laboratory research, data management, collaboration, and regulatory compliance, an ELN is a more suitable choice than OneNote.

Why not request a free 30-day trial of eLabNext’s digital lab platform today and try it yourself? Together, we can uncover the benefits above and many, many more!

1. Guerrero S, López-Cortés A, García-Cárdenas JM, et al. A quick guide for using Microsoft OneNote as an electronic laboratory notebook. PLOS Comput Biol. 2019;15(5):e1006918. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006918
2. Guerrero S, Dujardin G, Cabrera-Andrade A, et al. Analysis and Implementation of an Electronic Laboratory Notebook in a Biomedical Research Institute. PLoS ONE. 2016;11(8):e0160428. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0160428

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