A computer application meant to replace paper laboratory notebooks is an electronic laboratory notebook software (also known as an electronic laboratory notebook, or ELN notebook). In general, scientists, engineers, and technicians use lab notebooks to keep track of their research, experiments, and processes in the lab.
ELNs have a number of advantages over typical paper notebooks, including the ability to promote excellent data management practices, data security, auditing, and collaboration. In this post, we'll cover the pros and cons of ELNs and cover how they can benefit your organization.
Organizations with a requirement or preference for digital recording and storage of lab analytical data benefit from using an electronic laboratory notebook. There are multiple benefits to employing an ELN, including:
An ELN allows authorized users to add, edit, or view notes in real-time. This document collaboration enables teams in different locations to stay up-to-date on the progress of an experiment, even if they're not physically present and involved.
An ELN can also prevent mistakes before a project is complete. ELNs are capable of automatically detecting data errors, while also alerting human users as needed. This functionality is especially useful in the lab environment and in any industry where data accuracy is paramount.
In addition to preventing errors, an ELN can make it much more difficult for people to intentionally or accidentally tamper with research data. For example, an ELN can include intrusion detection systems and audit trails to detect data tampering.
An increasing number of regulations require organizations to document the entire analytical process for auditing purposes. ELNs facilitate this requirement by providing a complete record of all experimental data from start to finish.
An ELN can also help organizations prove the scientific validity of their results. Specifically, lab notebooks provide:
A historical account of data collection; including research details, experiment conditions, and equipment used throughout the analytical process. This record can be easily accessed by authorized users to ensure all requirements are met.
A complete, time-stamped record of data collection is stored within the ELN. This includes experimental protocols, lab notebooks, and raw data files for each instrument or analysis method used throughout the process (including which software was used to analyze that file).
An ELN can store all project metadata in a central database, enabling researchers to generate quick reports on project history and trends.
Data collected by an ELN can be validated for accuracy and compliance, which is especially important in regulated industries such as biotech or pharma.
There are pros and cons to every technological advancement, so it's necessary to consider the drawbacks of ELNs in addition to their advantages. Here are a few disadvantages of using an ELN:
ELNs store all project information centrally, which sometimes contributes to difficulty in locating and accessing specific data points. For example, if a lab technician removes a file from an ELN's database, it could be difficult to retrieve that information later. Since most ELNs are web-based, they can also lead to slow performance in large or complex projects.
To take advantage of the advantages of an ELN, you first need to know how to use it. Many ELNs require data entry in a specific format, and users who aren't familiar with the system may have difficulty navigating it.
ELNs are often expensive to purchase and maintain. Additionally, if your organization is already using research software (e.g., LIMS), you may need to add a new ELN on top of that. Finally, changes made by authorized users in an ELN can be costly if they aren't able to save or organize their work efficiently.
Some scientists and researchers are hesitant to use ELNs due to concerns about how the technology could affect their workflow. For example, many users in the scientific community like to annotate and document details about each step of an experiment on paper, which can be difficult to do with an ELN that requires specific data entry formats.
The advantages of an electronic lab notebook far outweigh the disadvantages, especially when considering how ELNs can increase data accuracy and reliability. In addition, more and more regulations require scientific organizations to maintain complete records of analytical procedures for auditing purposes. ELN technology provides a centralized platform that makes each step in scientific research completely traceable and auditable.