Switching to electronic lab logs may seem like a daunting task. But with careful planning all can go smoothly. In this post we describe a few tips and resources that can be useful for your journey to adopting an electronic lab notebook.
Abbreviations and term definitions: ELN = Electronic Lab Notebook (also known as digital lab notebook); lab logs: laboratory logs or records (protocols, observation and data); FDA = The Food and Drug Administration; NIH: the National Institutes of Health; Vendor: The company that owns and sells the ELN software product; CFR 21: Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations (FDA)
Digital solutions have almost become synonymous with cloud-based software applications or any software that runs on your computer and mobile that is powered by cloud based technologies such as data storage. This is especially true for electronic lab notebooks, because most labs want to use an ELN system that is able to store their notes securely in the cloud. Let's start with some of the benefits of keeping digital lab logs in the cloud versus keeping paper records:
Using electronic lab notebooks has been shown to reduce waste (Ref: https://sustainability.ncsu.edu/blog/2017/08/16/electronic-lab-notebook/). This makes sense considering that properly documented lab logs and data lead to better reproducibility of experiments by other researchers. It can be time-consuming to find a paper note that was recoded by a former postdoc many years ago. A good electronic lab notebook (ELN) will have a strong search functionality that will save you time and ultimately money.
It is true that sharing a paper lab notebook is much harder that sharing notes over the internet. A digital note that is stored in the cloud can be shared with multiple colleagues with a click of a button. Moreover, you can have the peace of mind that the original digital copy will never get lost or destroyed by others.
Digital Lab logs are more portable because you can access them from anywhere with internet connection. You can use your phone or computer to access the digital portal of your lab notebook app. In contrast, paper notes are usually always kept in your lab. A portable lab notebook allows you to write down ideas and schedule tasks at any time and place.
Using digital lab notes is a double edged sword when it comes to compliance and good laboratory practice. On one hand, software products can add a lot of complexity to existing quality systems in a lab. On the other hand, a suitable digital platform can greatly reduce the hassle of manual controls and procedures for compliance. Let's have a look an example: A lab decides to switch from keeping paper notebooks to digital records. This lab wants a low cost cloud based solution that is familiar to everyone. The lab members therefore decide to use a free cloud based genera note-keeping solution. This can cause a few problems in a regulated environment because document control and audit keeping is entirely missing from the general purpose note-taking solution. These problems can be entirely avoided by using a solution that is independently verified to be suitable for use in line with FDA regulations (21 CFR Part 11) and good laboratory and manufacturing practices.
Depending on your specific lab needs there can be many other benefits when adopting digital lab logs. It is therefore important to assess the needs of your lab and the capabilities of a good digital lab notebook solution. Many of these benefits are itemized in a chart published by major academic institutions. For example, the Gurdon Institute at the University of Cambridge has an excellent guide on Electronic Lab Notebooks. The guide categorizes ELN solutions based on price, capability and system requirements. This is a quick way to learn about different vendors snd their products. The next step is to talk to the vendor to schedule a product demo for your lab.
There are numerous resources that can help you choose a good laboratory notebook (see web links below for references). We recommend that first you plan ahead and think about all your lab's requirements. Second, research credible vendors and their software solution capabilities to see if they are a good fit for your team. Third, request a product demo. During the demo it is important that you are proactive and ask lots of questions so it help if you prepare in advance and think of all the questions that you may have. Although a product demo is not a replacement for proper training, it is a great opportunity for you to learn about the product itself and how easy it will be for you to use in the lab. Finally negotiate the price and be mindful of any extra charges added by some vendors for storage space or any potential price increases after the first year of use (this is not an ethical approach by vendors if not declared in advance of your purchase). Other factors such as on-site onboarding, training and tech support can be worth considering.
There are many online resources that can help you with embracing digital lab notebooks. Here's a list of our favorite online resources:
1- The Gurdon Institute Lab Notebook Guide: https://www.gurdon.cam.ac.uk/institute-life/computing/elnguidance
Note: Although this is an academic institute, their guide covers aspects of ELNs that are suited to corporate based labs also.
2- Harvard Biomedical Data Management: https://datamanagement.hms.harvard.edu/electronic-lab-notebooks
Note: The grid comparison covers an exhaustive list of features that are essential for ELNs.
Note: The ELN scorecard is a useful resource.
5- How to pick an electronic laboratory notebook, Nature Journal: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05895-3