What is an ELN?

Electronic lab notebook

Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELN)

What is an ELN? An ELN is a simple and direct replacement for that paper notebook that all scientists have used for so long. An ELN is a place to tell your story –
• Here’s what I did today,
• Here’s how I did it
• Here are the resources I used
• Here are my results
• Here’s what I think this research means
• Here is the feedback from my colleagues
When you make the switch from paper to CERF, your research story becomes fast, accurate, efficient, secure, reproducible and easy to share with others.

Science, not scrapbooking

But it goes far beyond paper; a well-designed ELN also allows the user to embed data – raw data, processed data, any data – by allowing the user to attach files of any sort to their notebook page. A very good ELN will even allow the display of this data directly on the notebook page, often in an interactive fashion – letting the user, or their collaborators and peers, interact with the data. Paper notebooks simply cannot display the types or quantity of information that we are now gathering; often our data lives in complex computer files which can’t be printed, or if they can, would never fit into the format of an 8.5”x11” piece of paper. An electronic laboratory notebook has no such boundaries.

Paper notebooks are

  • Damageable
  • Not easily searchable
  • Difficult to duplicate
  • Limited to written or print & paste entries
  • Easily forged or tampered
  • Space consuming
  • Bad for the environment

E-notebooks collect and organize:

  • Experiments
  • Methods and templates
  • Email communication
  • Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
  • Scientific Journal References
  • Witnessing (Digital Signatures)
  • Company policies
  • And any other documentation necessary for Research and Development, QA auditing, and Federal patent proof requirements

A good ELN lets you see your work all together on one page

An ELN is a modern replacement for paper notebooks that offers easy and secure collaboration and the ability to include data of all types, formats, and sizes. An ELN offers all the advantages of electronic information – easy to backup, easy to search. An ELN also automates many of the monotonous tasks that scientists face in the process of documenting the story of their research – time and date stamping, signing, auditing, etc.

Electronic information can be accessed anywhere and easily shared with collaborators

And speaking of collaborators and peers – electronic information is by its very nature not tied to any one location, which means that information stored in an ELN can potentially be accessed by multiple users simultaneously. This means that those collaborators and peers can literally have instantaneous access to that information, regardless of location. Thus a good ELN also eliminates some of the problems inherent in collaboration – the secure and accurate transmission of data, as well as the ability to view the data in context on the receiving end.  You can also select the information you wish to share with collaborators and keep the rest private.

One central system to keep you organized

Today we often find ourselves sending our collaborators a multitude of files and documents via email. Security notwithstanding, this is hardly the most efficient or expressive means of collaborating. Even if the various email systems involved in such a transaction allow the user to send and receive the amount of data involved, often the recipient is left with a series of files that they must then sort back in proper order to reassemble the story – and even then we don’t always have the appropriate software at both ends to interact or display all of the data. Instrument vendors tend to use high-end, proprietary software to generate some of our most precious data, and without access to the instrument itself, the raw data is often inaccessible, leaving us to express that information via screen captures or mere snapshots of the data.

Electronic notebooks

  • Make backups easy
  • Are easily searchable
  • Can be duplicated & shared
  • Automate things like entries and witnessing
  • Can be highly secure
  • Organize vast numbers of records
  • Offer access anywhere

Built-in compliance with QA and Federal Audit Trails

Security, of course, is an important consideration as well. The wisdom of sending unpublished data through email is questionable. A well-written ELN provides for various layers of security, including not only secure transmission of information using encryption protocols such as SSL, but limiting access to the data in the first place to only those individuals with whom one chooses to share. Many of the best ELNs offer full 21CFR11 compliance, which means that they include all of the features required by the federal guidelines put forth by the United States FDA regarding record compliance. This includes features such as:

  • audit trails to record who entered, modified, and accessed the data
  • time, date, user stamps and digital signatures to help track accountability
  • role-based access to control not only who can see the data, but what level of access they have (e.g. read-only, edit, etc.)

Collaboration with an ELN is undoubtedly vastly superior, and far more secure, to any of the previous means by which scientists have exchanged information. And in the very best ELNs the collaborator experiences the same view of the data as the individual generating it – well-defined pages with embedded, visual data objects, laid out in the proper order – not just a jumble of files that must be re-imagined at the receiving end.

Stop reinventing the wheel

The other obvious advantage of an ELN is that since the information is entered electronically, it is also searchable electronically. Gone is the illegibility and unsearchability of the handwritten notebook; with a properly-designed ELN every word in every entry (even if those entries are simply embedded documents such as MS Word™ or Excel™, PDF, etc.) is instantly searchable by anyone who has access to that information. This means less reinventing the wheel and more generation of new primary data; no more repeating experiments because it’s faster than searching the paper notebooks; no more repeating experiments because you don’t know someone else in your organization has already done that work or optimized that protocol! The most advanced ELNs also allow users to easily tag any data with keywords or comments, apply specific terms from controlled vocabularies, or even mine the data entered into the system – enhancing discoverability downstream, and synergistically linking data and trends that otherwise may remain undiscovered.

So then, the ideal ELN consists of a multi-user system that enables users to tell their story in an intuitive and easy fashion – creating notebook entries by typing or embedding files into a page-like interface which can easily and securely be shared with collaborators regardless of location. This same ELN will facilitate discovery by allowing searching of any content, automate some of the tedious “bookkeeping” that scientists have to do such as time and date stamping, and simplify the process of authentication of data via digital signatures.