There’s no question that we live in a digital world. Want a pizza? Order one online and it appears at your door in no time. Need a receipt for a purchase? The retailer sends it directly to your phone. The mountain of paper utility bills that used to pile up on your desk have given way to paperless billing and the ease of paying electronically from your bank account. No checks, no stamps required. When you go to the doctor, everything from a simple hangnail to all the lab results from your latest physical are meticulously kept in an electronic health record; that same e-record can also digitally send new prescriptions to your favorite pharmacy. Goodbye to a doctor’s mysterious scrawl on a prescription pad.
Today’s scientists are also living and working in a digital world where laboratories and lab equipment are primarily computer-controlled. Computers are used to capture, analyze, and maintain data. In fact, most of the entire experiment lifecycle is conducted digitally.
Digital information and processes have taken root in virtually every corner in the scientific world, except in one notable area: the venerable lab notebook.
The traditional paper lab notebook has long been a scientist’s trusted companion. Since the earliest days of research and experimentation, scientists have diligently recorded their experiments, keeping track of what they used, how they used it, and their results — all with paper and pen. Samples, equipment, protocols, and data were carefully recorded manually, both for the sake of accuracy and to ensure reproducibility of important work in future.
The results of all this manual record-keeping was often a messy jumble of barely legible pages, disorganized data, and hours wasted going page by page through old notebooks trying to find the SOP that was followed in a particular experiment 6 months ago. Or was it a year ago?
But the digital revolution has given scientists an alternative to wasted time and taping or gluing printouts of results into notebooks: the electronic lab notebook (ELN).
Paper or ELN?
Today’s electronic lab notebook is more than just a software replica of its paper ancestor: It is a multi-functional data manager. An ELN can quickly and accurately import data, notes, observations, and results from a computer or mobile device. It can “talk” to different types of lab equipment and store the data they generate. When integrated with a LIMS (a Laboratory Information Management System), the ELN becomes a powerful data hub for any scientific lab, large or small.
The ELN would appear to be almost a “magical” solution, instantly turning piles of messy notebooks into a centralized data center of functional, organized, and easily accessible information, right? Not so fast.
Ironically, even in labs that are now symphonies of digital devices, the old-fashioned lab notebook remains a bastion of days gone by. Many otherwise computer-literate members of the scientific community are still reluctant to give up paper notes in favor of more modern methods of managing data and research.
A recent survey published in the Journal of Cheminformatics highlighted some of the perceived barriers to ELN usage: they included cost, ease-of-use, and accessibility issues across different devices and operating systems.
Nevertheless, with the right product, these barriers can be overcome — and should be, given the multitude of benefits that using an electronic lab notebook can bring.
Great Reasons to Ditch the Paper Notebook and Go ELN
It’s time to rethink the paper notebook and go digital; here are five good reasons why.
1. Compliance Made Easy
Laboratories that need to be compliant with numerous regulatory rules reap great benefits from using ELNs. For regulated industries and organizations, electronic collection of data falls under such regulations as 21 CFR Part 11. An ELN with audit trails and controlled access can provide essential components of the compliance architecture (the others being the appropriate policies and procedures that govern operations). Within the ELN, data collection can then be linked with the specifics of those policies and procedures. Having an organized, controlled environment makes the inevitable audits and inspections more manageable and likely to withstand a challenge.
2. Simplified Data Management
Working with the digital template of an electronic lab notebook simplifies the curation of information resources — including samples, reagents, results, lot numbers, order numbers — all in a single place. Whether it’s a routine run or developing an SOP, with an ELN you can easily link and track all of the data together. The ELN won’t write the data for you — you still have to be disciplined enough to put the data in the system — but it does make it faster!
3. Enhanced Tracking
ELNs make it much easier to keep track of all orders when sending samples to the local core facility or to an external service provider.
4. Digital Archiving
Lab results recorded in an ELN allow for easier accessibility and enhanced long-term data security since the electronic notebook can be safely backed up on the server or in the cloud.
5. Easy Collaboration
Searching for an experiment is greatly simplified in an ELN compared to looking through a stack of paper notebooks. Instead of handing over numerous lab books and reams of papers, scientific teams can quickly and efficiently share information stored in the ELN, facilitating collaboration and sharing within teams and outside the laboratory. No more worries about trying to extrapolate data from every single team member’s separate lab notebook.
ELNs have a number of additional benefits that make them a great lab assistant. If you connect an ELN to your LIMS, you can easily keep track of equipment maintenance records, store personnel records and competencies, archive equipment run information, and track related sample information for QA teams — all in one spot. ELNs can enhance the data you keep. In addition to text, with a few clicks you can easily import images, charts, graphs, links, and even video files into an ELN. Try doing that in a paper notebook.
ELNs are on-the-go wherever you are: They can be used equally in the lab, at home, or on the road. Imagine being able to show a collaborator lab results while at a conference!
For a lab manager, using an ELN makes it easier to enforce a common structure for data,
The digital revolution is here to stay, in and outside the lab. It’s time to seriously consider the advantages of going paperless. If you’d like to schedule a demo of our integrated LIMS + ELN platform and learn more about how digital data management can make you and your lab more efficient, contact us.
Designed by Genohm, SLIMS is the all-in-one solution for modern laboratory management, providing a seamless integration of Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) and ELN functionalities in one powerful platform. The comprehensive features in SLIMS are tailored for your laboratory, including a complete Electronic Laboratory Notebook with Workflows and Order Management modules for all experiments. For more information about SLIMS and our integrated ELN, visit our website.