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Thinking about making the switch to an electronic lab notebook? Here are some pros and cons

Thinking about making the switch to an electronic lab notebook? Here are some pros and cons hero image

The rise of electronic lab notebooks has been predicted for years, but finally now it seems like these solutions are gaining widespread acceptance in labs.

Electronic lab notebooks are digital replacements for good old paper notebooks—they can help researchers document experiments and include protocol templates, collaboration tools, e-signature support, and lab inventory management.

Switching to electronic lab notebooks is not always easy, but they are being embraced and even expected by younger researchers who grew up with digital tools, notes a report in Nature.

“Recent trends in research have also created a demand for such changes: as scientists deal with increasing volumes of data, gluing printed results into a paper notebook becomes more archaic,” states the Nature article. “Concerns over reproducibility, as well as more stringent requirements on data management from funding agencies, have motivated improvements in the documentation of lab work.”

That expansion of data means electronic notebooks aren’t just helpful, adds Biocompare—they are basically required. Some researchers spend nearly 40% of their time doing paperwork, and there are increased demands to save time and share data. Further, there are concerns over reproducibility and data management requirements from funding agencies. All these factors seem to suggest that the days of tracking lab experiments with pen and paper, or gluing printed results into a notebook, are hurtling toward a digital end.

“Automation and digitization enabled researchers to achieve outputs like never before imaginable,” notes Splice.

And while lab notebooks have been around since da Vinci, “Experimental records that aren’t being digitized account for 17% loss of all research data and lab books are becoming the bottlenecks in information management,” Splice adds.

Thinking about making the switch? Here are some pros and cons to consider:

Advantages

  • Information is easy to search, copy, and archive.
  • Experiments can be linked to samples and filed with little effort.
  • Data can be shared simply.
  • Easy compliance with FDA 21 CFR Part 11.
  • No more wasted paper and notes written in handwriting that no one can decipher.
  • Oversight and monitoring are simple and can be done remotely.
  • Some electronic notebooks can automatically generate reports and manuscript drafts, and some can export all data in a readable format and API.
  • Information can gain the “pedigree” needed to settle intellectual property disputes, suggests Biocompare, and answer questions related to “who” and “when.”
  • Some products can integrate with Mendeley and PubMed.

Downsides

  • While some electronic lab notebook software is free, vendors may limit data storage or file size and the number of users.
  • Portability is a concern – if an electronic lab notebook maker goes out of business or raises their prices, the information you have stored on that company’s products might only get a PDF export which can’t be transferred to another product.
  • While rare, network interruptions could delay downloads, uploads, and viewing.
  • While also rare, security breaches cannot be ruled out.
  • Not all electronic solutions are suitable for all lab work. Some, for example, cannot integrate CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing software.
  • Not all products are easy to use, and user reviews on some products are rife with complaints about nonintuitive interfaces and the need for additional training.

Biocompare cautions that before settling on an electronic lab notebook, potential users should carefully inspect the solution and how it will integrate with their lab. Further, once a solution is chosen, the transition from pen and paper to virtual recording should be mapped out in detail and perhaps implemented in stages.

“How do you know if the ELN is right for you?” asks Gold Biotechnology. “That’s going to depend on the level of security required and your ability to adapt to changing technology. If you work in a more flexible lab with a tech-savvy team—start exploring this option.”

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