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What is an Electronic Lab Notebook (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 a 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 online notebooks you can enter protocols, observations, notes, and other data using your computer or mobile device.
What are the benefits of an ELN?
While paper lab notebooks have a long history in maintaining the research record, they are not without shortfalls in their functionality. A few examples that ELNs improve upon:
- Reducing effort integrating electronic data into the notebook
- Better compliance with records keeping
- Sharing with collaborators
- Better data management
- Versioning and built-in IP protection measures
While ELN offers many 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. Take a look at our Transitioning to an ELN page for more information.
Keeping Research Notes: Best Practices
A lab notebook establishes a permanent record detailing what was done during the course of a project. Laboratory notebooks can also serve as a source for assigning credit to lab members, addressing concerns related to scientific misconduct or invention derivation, and establishing a researcher’s inventive contribution to a patentable technology.
Records must be sufficiently detailed and clear to allow “someone skilled in the art” to recreate the work and to conduct additional work without the direct assistance of the original researcher. Document what was done, why it was done, who suggested it, who did it, when it was done, what the results were (positive or negative), what conclusions were drawn, and future plans.
All details of a project should be recorded, including raw data and final results of experiments, protocols and designs of experiments, calculations, details of equipment use and a key to any abbreviations used. Include data from recording instruments, drawings, photographs, charts, etc. Record all research and developmental efforts, including ideas generated during meetings, and the source of the ideas. Record dates when an idea was conceived and when work on the idea was started and completed. Notebook entries should ideally be made on the same day as the event, or as soon thereafter as possible (and indicate when the actual work was done). Record plans for future experiments.
Be factual! Avoid any negative comments concerning the project or the results of an experiment and comments reflecting the nature, quality or utility of the results of a research project. Document when, where, and to whom your research is presented. Researchers can share laboratory notebooks as long as each researcher fulfills their responsibility of signing, dating and obtaining witnesses for laboratory notebook pages with their research entries.
If data are maintained electronically, consider that electronic records/notebooks must achieve the same objectives as hard copy laboratory notebooks (see above). Electronic records must credibly document a researcher’s work in sufficient detail, including the date of creation, the content when created and the details related to any subsequent amendments, and the records must be reproducible in human readable form. Most court cases don’t occur until many years after the electronic record creation, so record management considerations are critical, including issues such as file storage and software maintenance.
When developing a system for research records that includes (wholly or in part) electronic records, please consider the following criteria, as they affect the viability and credibility of research records:
- Permanency of records: archive in electronic or paper form?
- Amended records: can you tell what was changed, when, and by whom? Is it possible to access and read the old versions?
- Security: have the records been altered/compromised? Are they safe from disasters and protected against loss?
- Identity management: who created a record and made any changes? Can records be signed and witnessed?
- Are the file locations permanent? Could a linked file be changed? Will the link be reliable or could the link be broken?
- Where are data stored? Personal laptops or lab/department computers? If using a service, are data stored inside or outside the US? Cloud-based (where)?
- Would the use of the specific software affect ownership of the data?
- Labs/researchers may be obligated to comply with data management requirements from institutions, funding agencies, sponsors, etc.