The evolution of the Electronic Lab Notebook

Scientist in laboratory

This paid-for advertorial by Labforward appeared in DDW Volume 23 – Issue 4, Fall 2022.

Sophisticated and intuitive, the digital lab notebook is replacing the traditional paper lab notebook in many laboratories worldwide – but does a documentation solution go far enough to connect the laboratory? In this article we delve into the past, present and future of ELNs in the fast-paced digital world.

Paper lab notebooks are difficult to compete with. Having been around for centuries, it’s been the main method of recording scientific breakthroughs and has been rooted in the processes of laboratories worldwide. Now, in a time of increasing digitisation there are major drawbacks to using such a tool to record research. Those who have used a paper lab notebook may know all too well the frustrations of having to locate experiments performed previously. Illegible notes, incomplete records, or simply data loss caused by employee departure can all contribute to issues with reproducibility. This costs organisations valuable time and impacts productivity, and as we all know, time is money.

ELNs were brought in as a way of streamlining the process of research documentation, purposefully built to meet the specific requirements of people working in the laboratory. Thus, they go further than digital note-taking tools like OneNote or Google docs, as ELNs are tailored to scientific research. Laboratory workers may already have processes in digital format, but controlling the storage, security and access of that data is integral to ensuring research compliance, standardisation and intellectual property protection, and for that a more bespoke solution is required.

Enter the ELN; a platform that offers a central location for the management of research records. While the components of an ELN differ depending on the vendor, most offer features that encourage standardisation, replicability and compliance of data. For example, some offer a full audit trail, allowing laboratory users to visualise all the changes made to a specific entry and go back and recover previous versions if required.

This not only prevents data loss or mismanagement, but also facilitates a level of oversight simply not possible with paper. Further to this, with most ELNs a laboratory manager can control the access rights of individuals on their team. This ensures that everyone who needs access can work on projects together, but that permission is managed. Given the emphasis on digital technology in today’s world, coupled with the fact that laboratories at their core are places that thrive on standardisation and precision, it’s not surprising that ELNs have optimised research documentation, changing it for the better.

With an oversaturated market, it can be difficult for researchers to decide which ELN is right for them. Length of time on the market is often a good indicator, but one must also consider whether the ELN is “future-proof” as the digitalization journey doesn’t stop with the integration of a documentation solution. ELNs cannot alone deliver the level of connectivity needed to create the “Smart Lab” (a laboratory where teams, devices and platforms are fully connected and optimised). It is becoming increasingly important that vendors offer ELNs that support further digitalisation, perhaps with device integration or an inventory management solution.

That’s why Labforward’s approach offers three products to provide the basis for laboratory connectivity and assist researchers from a project’s inception to conclusion. Laboratory users can manage their inventory with Labregister, execute experiments and directly collect research data within their laboratory execution system Laboperator, and finally accurately “recordnresearch” documentation on Labfolder ELN.

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