For centuries paper notebooks have been integral tools for scientists who laboriously and carefully recorded specific details of their research and experiments.
That picture began to change in the 1990s with the development of the ELN (electronic lab notebook.) An ELN is a digital version of the traditional lab notebook. Like a paper notebook, it documents the who, what, when, where, how, and why of daily activities in the lab.
This article explains the benefits of a paperless lab, identifies the hurdles researchers face in implementing an ELN, and addresses the keys to a successful transition from paper notebooks to an ELN.
Two essentials of scientific discovery are 1) reliable data in a format that’s accessible and easy-to-use and 2) time efficiencies that help researchers get critical products to market in a timely fashion. An ELN surpasses paper notebooks in the ability to provide both of these critical elements.
An ELN’s collection, retrieval, and analysis features help scientists generate data that is:
In a perfect world, lab notes would always be written neatly. They’d never have anything spilled on them. They would be stored securely, protected from moisture, aging, and disasters like fires and floods.
Unfortunately, even the most meticulous laboratory environment isn’t perfect. Some notes are legible only to the scientist who wrote them. Accidents happen. Occasionally, disaster strikes.
The result is that a percentage of notes are unusable. Scientists may disagree over how widespread the problem is, but they concur that not all hand-written lab notes are legible.
Extremely precise formulas can be solved instantly, accurately, and repeatedly, regardless of the researcher who performs the calculations. The system incorporates date and time stamps as well as user identification to verify who did what.
A growing number of ELNs–including the hybrid SciCord ELN/LIMS–also utilize a spreadsheet format. With a spreadsheet, researchers can enter one–or hundreds–of formulas that automatically calculate data entered into the cell. This feature reduces entry errors and saves time for scientists and reviewers.
Accessible and Retrievable
Accessing and retrieving information stored in paper notebooks can be a nightmare, especially if the data is stored off-site. Rifling through dozens–or hundreds–of notebooks takes time, even if items are stored carefully and consistently. Locating the exact page with the specific details requires more time. The process can be tedious and time-consuming, even when all team members follow protocols precisely.
Using a search function, an ELN allows you to quickly access mountains of data and retrieve the precise information needed.
You have everything in one place; you can easily search through your data using keywords, and you can find all your data instantly.
– Jana Erjavec, Ph.D., on SciCord ELN/LIMS
In addition to standard search functionality of sample and document descriptions, some ELNs (including SciCord ELN/LIMS) support definition of data attributes and incorporate filtering on a much more granular level.
Scientists working on projects that utilize the same data can share their insights and results with others without sacrificing control or having their data compromised. ELN security protocols limit access to the data and restrict–or deny– data manipulation.
The shareable feature also mitigates difficulties that arise when a researcher gets sick, takes a vacation, retires, or leaves the lab to work elsewhere. Work that relies upon that person’s data isn’t delayed or halted altogether.
While no ELN can guarantee 100% security, electronic notebook systems provide superior data protection compared to paper notebooks. Unlike paper notebooks, an ELN offers safety measures that include layered passwords, encryption, replication, regular data backup, and–often–multiple storage locations.
The adage– “Time is Money” –is true, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry where, according to a study completed in 2020, “the median cost of getting a new drug into the market was $985 million, and the average cost was $1.3 billion.”
Those statistics make a strong case for transitioning to an ELN. A survey by SciNote asserts that, “On average, researchers save 9 hours per week by using an ELN, while doing the same amount of work!” Thus, with a 40-hour work week and a 50-week work year, researchers would finish the year’s planned activities halfway through week 39.
Time savings accrue in virtually every part of the lab–data entry, search, and retrieval; calculations and statistics; inventory control and labeling; and documentation and reports. These efficiencies allow researchers to accomplish more with an ELN than they could without one.
An ELN provides solutions for some of the most pressing issues facing labs today. However, according to Dr. Simon Bungers, as recently as 2020, “Less than 10% of researchers are using an electronic lab notebook today.”
Why is that? Here are the difficulties scientists frequently mention:
Many labs don’t see the need to change, even though they know that technology has affected virtually every other aspect of scientific discovery. It’s not just that paper notebooks have been the status quo for centuries. Some scientists suspect that ELN systems may cause bigger problems than they solve.
When ELNs first hit the market, researchers in virtually every field questioned the wisdom of releasing control of their data. They knew the shortcomings posed by paper notebooks but still felt that their data was safer when they controlled where it went and who accessed it.
That feeling has shifted a bit, but some scientists–especially those who meticulously follow data safety protocols and adhere to GLP (Good Laboratory Practices)–are still reluctant to trust an ELN.
Since laboratory science is a complex world of testing and discovery, it demands attention to detail and intense focus. Some scientists worry that an ELN will add an unnecessary level of complexity that will muddle or derail their professional focus and lead to costly errors.
Each ELN is tailored to the lab that uses it. Therefore, there’s no accurate estimate of the cost to implement an “average” ELN for an “average” lab. The cost varies based upon the number of users, the scale of the lab’s required services, and whether the ELN is hosted or located on-premise.
The initial cash outlay to install and coordinate the hardware and software needs of an ELN deters some labs from making the switch. Decision-makers also need to account for the subscription cost of a hosted ELN or the required hardware upgrades for an ELN that’s located on the premises.
Successful transitioning from paper notebooks won’t happen without one or more people from your lab who facilitate the process by:
Implementing any systemic change takes time. Virtually everyone in the lab will have to transition both mentally and physically.
A transition team composed of personnel from the lab and the ELN will be integral to the process of tactfully and skillfully guiding researchers as they learn the nuances of the software and how to adhere to GLP while using it.
In a busy lab, there will never be a perfect moment to switch from paper notebooks to an ELN. Research and experiments that are already in progress will be disrupted. Everyone’s productivity will dip briefly while he or she acclimates to the ELN.
However, given the financial benefits of implementing an ELN, waiting for the perfect moment could be very costly, both in terms of the rate of getting drugs on the market and in the additional ROI the lab could generate with an efficient ELN. Unless the lab is facing a crisis, the best time to transition to an ELN is now.
An excellent ELN provider for your lab is the one that meets your needs and supports you during and after the transition. As you choose a provider, ask these questions:
SciCord is a hybrid ELN/LIMS, featuring a spreadsheet paradigm, that combines the compliance and structured aspects of a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) with the flexibility of an Electronic Laboratory Notebook (ELN). The ELN and LIMS functions integrate seamlessly and enable your company to quickly reap the benefits of enhanced data and time efficiencies as you continue to meet compliance standards and follow GLP.
If you’d like to learn more about how you could use SciCord ELN/LIMS in your laboratory, please request a demo. Provide us your contact information, and we’ll share a helpful demo that will show you how our ELN/LIMS could boost the productivity of your lab and enhance the quality of your data.