Learn About ELNs

What is an ELN?

Historically, keeping a paper lab notebook to record experimental work has been a tradition in many disciplines. Paper notebooks are good for writing down procedures, observations, conclusions and for drawing flow charts and diagrams by hand. However, in order to accommodate the modern influx of digital data, researchers have taped instrumentation and computer printouts onto the pages of their notebooks, or cross-referenced larger data sets by recording file names and locations in the notebook.

An ELN (electronic lab notebook) is an online software tool that in its most basic form replicates an interface much like a page in a paper lab notebook. ELNs have been widely used in private sector labs for many years, but only recently have major higher education institutions started to offer this service to their researchers. In this online notebook you can enter protocols, observations, notes, and other data using your computer or mobile device. This offers several advantages over the traditional paper notebook.


 Why would I consider an ELN instead of a paper notebook?

While paper lab notebooks have a long history in maintaining the research record, they are not without shortfalls in their functionality. This has led some researchers in our pilot studies to consider ELNs an improvement in many areas. A few examples that ELNs improve:

  • Searchability
  • Reducing effort integrating electronic data into the notebook
  • Better compliance with records keeping
  • Sharing with collaborators
  • Portability
  • Better data management

While ELN offers several benefits over a traditional paper notebook, the migration to an all-digital cloud service introduces new risks that PIs must consider and plan for before adoption. Please read the pages on Benefits and Risks and Data Security carefully for more information.


 Who is providing the ELN software?

The software that UW-Madison has chosen for our campus-wide ELN service is the professional edition of LabArchives. A rigorous procurement and vetting process was performed from Summer 2013 to Spring 2014, and the contract for service was signed in June of 2014, clearing the way for implementation in Fall semester 2014. Information about LabArchives and their software is available on their web site, including an overview of their service and some features and benefits. Please note that much of the information on the LabArchives website is geared toward individual labs and signing up for their service. While they do offer the ability to create a private account on their website, our contract allows UW-Madison a secure, private, site licensed instance and we ask all interested UW-Madison users to fill out the sign-up form to ensure proper access controls and data security are in place.


 What is the cost for me or my lab to use UW-Madison’s LabArchives instance? 

Our site license to use the software is at no cost to all faculty, researchers, staff, graduate students, and undergraduate students in performing their research activities. Note our contract does not include the classroom edition of the LabArchives service at this time. Questions about the academic and classroom use of LabArchives can be directed to the Service TeamThe contract was signed in June, 2014, and UW-Madison paid in advance for services until summer 2017. Funding has been secured through summer 2018 at this time. Like many services provided by campus, the campus is exploring the most appropriate mechanism for long-term funding. We are confident in the long-term viability of ELN services for the campus.


Why should I use the campus LabArchives service instead of another ELN provider?

UW-Madison has a signed agreement with LabArchives, and this contract includes measures that provide the University and its researchers’ data many levels of legal and security protection that other services will not be able to offer without a similar contract executed by the University. Placing appropriate research data and notes into the UW-Madison instance of LabArchives also assists with adherence to campus policies such as Data Stewardship. Additionally, there is no charge to eligible personnel for using the notebook.


All of this sounds pretty good. Where can I sign up?

There are a number of items to consider and decisions to be made prior to placing your research data into the LabArchives service. Make sure you have read and understood the pages on this web site that detail Data Security, Benefits and Risks, and whether or not a cloud service is right for your research data. Most importantly, in order to comply with UW-Madison’s Data Stewardship policy, notebook ownership accounts are provisioned only for individuals with Principal Investigator status. Lab managers and others working in labs and on grants can access their PI’s notebook(s) with permission and consent of the PI.

Please take a look at the page Service Eligibility for more information.

  • If you have PI status, please fill out the form and a service team member will contact you shortly.
  • If you do not have PI status, please talk with your lab manager and/or PI about this service and encourage them to find out more.