Electronic Lab Notebook Best Practices

Electronic lab notebooks (ELN) tout themselves as productivity tools for life sciences researchers. Some ELNs are targeted to academic researchers, and some are for use in regulated industries like biotech startups. Electronic lab notebooks can be both a tremendous boon to a researchers productivity and a fantastic way for organizations to manage a seamless digital workflow for laboratory information.

But what are Electronic Lab Notebook best practices for meeting your needs and those of your organization? That's not always clear. For a quick guide, see below for some ideas on how to really get the most out of an Electronic Lab Notebook and get on the right track.

Plan ahead

The first hurdle in using an Electronic Lab Notebook is deciding which vendor to choose for your needs. Just like paper notebooks that are available in different colors and sizes, there are more than 60 ELN vendor options to choose from. The truth is only one or two of these vendors will truly meet all your specific needs. For starters, create a spreadsheet document that lists all the features that you need; divide these into different categories like features that must be included and bonus features. Enter one feature per row in a single column and in the neighboring column enter a more detailed description for each feature. Finally the last column can contain a checkbox per feature that can be used to record feature availability for each vendor. Quick tip: One of the requested features can be the ability to request custom features for your needs. If working in an organization, the feature request spreadsheet can be shared with the team for review. For example, the R&D team can collaborate with the regulatory affairs team to have complete list of the needed features that meet your organizations needs.

In addition to some obvious features that you may need, here are some recommended features that you can ask for: -Provide local on-site support and training, -Data centers must be within the same country as client; -Ability to interact with system through an Application Programing Interface (API); -Provide a native app for tablets and mobile devices; -FDA part 11 compliance; -System availability during the working week; -Threat monitoring and alert system; -Assistance with regulatory compliance.

One way to select an ELN vendor is to distribute the spreadsheet to multiple ELN vendors and request that they check the features that are already built in their systems. Then request a 1:1 demo and narrow down the ideal candidates.

Save time by downloading our ELN Feature Request template that can be customized and sent out to your shortlisted ELN vendors

Click here to request the Excel template

Establish operating procedures

Electronic Lab Notebook software solutions usually allow users a certain degree of flexibility in how they use the platform for keeping scientific records. This freedom can be advantageous in terms of lowering the barrier to adoption, but it also can cause confusion in terms of how the system is being used in an organization for data entry and managing the entire digital workflow. To promote trustworthiness and regulatory compliance, an organization can publish guidelines or SOPs on how the system must be used. The ultimate goal here is to ensure consistency and reproducibility. In case things go wrong or there is a system failure it will be much easier to identify and resolve any issues if the system was being used constantly by following a rigorous set of guidelines. The ELN vendor may be able to assist with creating the standard procedures or provide templates for regulatory compliance.

Using Standard Operating Procedures, Work Instructions and Quality Management System should not be limited to users of Electronic Lab Notebooks. The vendors have a responsibility to also establish these important measures to ensure a robust and reliable system that can be used by clients as part of their mission critical systems.

-Dr Hani Ebrahimi, CEO & co-founder at LabLog

Keep an eye on security

Let's be clear: Not all Electronic Lab Notebooks are necessarily a secure platform. That said, you can still achieve piece of mind by using a vendor who can provide you with impartial third-party audits of their systems for security compliance to standards such as ISO 27001 and FDA Part 11. A robust encryption system for data-at-rest must already be in place. Additionally a threat detection and an alert system, geo-redundant encrypted backups and fault tolerant systems can all ensure that you data is secure and always available to you.

Finally, one of the best reasons to pony up for a Business-grade solution is the ability to generate human-readable audit logs and document change history, which tracks all changes on your lab notes over time.

Get on-site support and training

Studies that have looked at the obstacles in implementing new software have mainly concluded that the number one challenge is inadequate training. This is perhaps surprising considering that most teams think the biggest challenges would be related to product shortcomings, infrastructure, costs and internal politics. 

The process of using a new ELN system can be overwhelming and confusing. This even more important where an organization still has to perform scientific research as usual on a daily basis. So researchers are asked to tend to the tasks of their core job and participate in software training.

It is clear, it's just not enough to spend a few minutes with a watching online videos or attending webinars. Proper software training is critical to a companies success. We don't mean any type of generic training, we are referring to training specifically tailored to the your team's requirements. It is not surprising that the best way to tailor the training to your teams needs in by organizing on-site training sessions. On-site lab notebook app training also promotes consistent messaging between organizations and teams. This approach ensures seamless adoption of a new lab notebook platform while allowing growth and efficiency.

Push for improvement

There is no doubt that successful organizations are regularly shifting priorities to adapt the dynamic needs of the life sciences industries. As research projects evolve and products are shipped to customers, there will be different demands in terms of what the ELN should do for your team. The best way to adapt to these changes is to work with the ELN vendor to continuously monitor system deficiencies and daily performance. Provide regular feedback and request new feared or customized modules that help your mission critical research. This ensures efficiency in R&D and shorter time to market for new ideas.

Related articles:

Notebook Best Practices: https://labnotebooks.columbia.edu/content/notebook-best-practices

Keeping a lab notebook: https://www.training.nih.gov/assets/Lab_Notebook_508_(new).pdf

Electronic Lab Notebooks: https://datamanagement.hms.harvard.edu/electronic-lab-notebooks

Posts you might also like:

6 Common Misconceptions About Electronic Lab Notebooks: https://labnotebook.app/blog/6-common-misconceptions-about-lab-notebook-apps

7 Ways to Become FDA Part 11 Compliant Without Spending a Dime: https://labnotebook.app/blog/7-ways-to-become-fda-part-11-compliant

How do you manage your electronic laboratory notes? https://labnotebook.app/blog/managing-lab-notebook-data