How to Implement an Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) in an Existing Lab

By eLabNext 4 min read 30 Nov 2023

Keeping track of critical samples, reagents, and data is necessary for the efficient operations of any laboratory. And if your lab has been operating for a while, you and your colleagues have likely developed a process for managing all of this essential laboratory “stuff.”  

So, how’s that process working out for you? 

Are their issues that waste time and money and result in misplaced samples or data? 

I’ve seen many labs manage their samples, reagents, and data using traditional paper lab notebooks, which can be cumbersome, disorganised, and difficult to search. By contrast, electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) offer a modern, digital solution to these problems by allowing researchers to store, organise, and share data digitally. 

Previously, we discussed implementing an ELN in a brand-new lab. However, those in labs that are already up and running face a more significant challenge: Changing “business as usual” for a more cost- and time-efficient process. This blog will tackle implementing an ELN in an existing lab.

Step 1: Evaluate Your Needs

Before selecting an ELN, evaluating your lab’s needs is important. Consider the following questions:

  • What types of experiments will you be conducting?
  •  What data will you need to record?
  •  How do you want this data organised?
  •  How will you share data with colleagues and collaborators?
  •  Will you need to integrate with existing laboratory information management systems (LIMS)?
  •  How many users will need access to the ELN?
  •  What is your budget?

Answering these questions will help you determine which ELN solution is right for your lab. Be sure to check in with everyone in your lab, understand their needs, and discuss what an ELN needs to accomplish for them to use it. 

Step 2: Choose an ELN

Once you’ve evaluated your lab’s needs, it’s time to select an ELN that fills those needs. Many options are available, from free and open-source solutions to enterprise-level platforms with advanced features. To navigate your selection process, it may be beneficial to create an evaluation checklist. The evaluation checklist should be separated into phases to reflect your decision-making process. 

Here is a simplified evaluation checklist that can help you narrow down your selections:

Phase 1

  • Identify multiple ELN vendors from which to choose

Phase 2

  • Identify if any other departments are currently using an ELN
  • Contact IT and your procurement department to outline various policies for purchasing

Phase 3

  • Setup an ELN task force
  • Setup regular meetings to discuss progress on ELN selection

Phase 4

  • Interview and demo different ELN platforms
  • Sign up for trials (if offered)
  • Generate a list of must-haves and questions
  • Take notes!

Phase 5

  • Define the current and future scope of the ELN
  • Outline the number of users needed
  • Cross-reference various ELN capabilities with your list of must-haves
  • Outline the funding source for your ELN

Phase 6

  • Evaluate your short list of vendors based on results from previous phases
  • Narrow down your selection to 1-3 vendors
  • Make a selection based on price vs. capabilities, working relationship with ELN vendor, and overall ease of implementation in your existing lab

Step 3: Set Up the ELN

Once you’ve selected an ELN, you’ll need to set it up for your lab. This will typically involve the following steps:

  • Create user accounts for all lab members who will need access to the ELN.
  •  Establish permissions and access controls for different levels of users.
  •  Define the lab’s data structure, including naming conventions, folder organisation, and subfolders.
  •  Set up templates for different types of experiments or data entries to ensure consistency.
  •  Configure any integrations with existing LIMS or other laboratory software (Bonus if your ELN comes with a fully integrated LIMS!)

Step 4: Train Lab Members

Training lab members to use the ELN effectively is crucial once the ELN is set up. This should include:

  • An overview of the ELN’s features and capabilities.
  •  Instructions on how to create and organise entries.
  •  Best data entry practices include using consistent naming conventions and recording detailed notes.
  •  Guidelines for sharing data and collaborating with other lab members.

If the ELN vendor offers training and onboarding for key users and lab members, we highly recommend learning as much as possible from them.

Step 5: Monitor and Maintain the ELN

Once the ELN is up and running, monitoring and maintaining it is important to ensure it remains organised and effective. This may include:

  • Regularly reviewing data entries to ensure they are complete and accurate.
  •  Updating templates and naming conventions as needed to improve consistency.
  •  Troubleshooting any issues or errors with the ELN.
  •  Staying up-to-date with software updates and security patches.

Implementing an electronic lab notebook can be a significant investment of time and resources, but the benefits of improved organisation, collaboration, and data management are well worth it! Following these steps, you can successfully implement an ELN in your existing lab and take your research to the next level!

Contact eLabNext today to learn more about implementing our digital lab platform in your lab.

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