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Electronic Lab Notebooks - for prospective users

Information for researchers who are interested in adopting an Electronic Lab Notebook system for documenting research and managing data.

Further information on research data management can be found on the main University website.

Please also feel free to register and join in the ELN Discussion Forum.

 

What is an Electronic Lab Notebook, and why should I use one?

An ELN is a software system for documenting your research work. In its most basic form it might simply provide a word-processor-like interface to replicate the way you currently use a paper notebook, but with additional benefits such as shareability, searchability, password protection and backup. Many ELN packages offer a wealth of other features too, enabling data management, collaboration, integration with other software, laboratory information management (LIMS) and many more. However, the complexity of these products, and their different designs and feature sets, and the level of commitment they demand, can make the task of choosing a product difficult.

In July/August 2017, following a meeting earlier in the year ('Paperless research solutions - Electronic Lab Notebooks'), a working group in the University of Cambridge coordinated a trial of (life sciences) ELN products to explore the possibility of deployment or recommendation of a product for use at campus, school or departmental level. The results suggested that, because of the diversity of researchers' interests, requirements and preferences even within a single department, none of the four products we trialled would satisfy all users. Therefore, rather than recommending any particular product(s) over and above the rest, this document seeks to provide guidance that might help you to identify a product that is well-suited to your personal workflows, preferences and environment. A selection of current ELN products is included at the bottom of the page.

 

A note about DIY documentation systems

Many individuals and groups are successfully using combinations of readily-available and well-established productivity tools (e.g. EvernoteOneNoteDropboxOneDrive) to operate systems that provide most of the core features of a 'real' electronic lab notebook. It's an attractive, economical, accessible and low-impact option utilising software tools that are already familiar to most users, but it requires a disciplined and well-organised approach, and, since the products are not designed with ELN applications in mind, users should be aware of the risk of interruption caused by unfriendly software updates.

 

ELN vs LIMS

A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is a database system for management of a lab's research resources - e.g. freezer stocks & samples, reagents etc, often including procurement and ordering features. Its basic function is therefore distinct from that of an Electronic Lab Notebook, but it's not unusual for features to overlap in areas like protocol management for example. Many ELN products have started life and developed as an integral part of a LIMS, and then branched into a separate product, and in some cases the LIMS heritage is still  apparent in the ELN's complex and very 'database-like' interface. If you're attracted to LIMS functionality as well as an ELN, consider carefully whether you'd prefer the convenience of a single, large and complex product that will do everything, or a pair of products that might offer clearer focus and more streamlined interfaces.

 

Disengagement - what if I want to change systems?

One of the most substantial obstacles to uptake of any ELN product is anxiety about the pain of disengagement if the software becomes unsuitable at any point in the future. Almost all ELN vendors provide an export feature, offering at least PDF output, and it's worth considering the value of that PDF file (compared to a paper notebook for example): it is searchable, shareable, and can be secured and duplicated - all of the basic benefits of a documentation system are satisfied. Although the old records in PDF format might not be ingested easily into a new system, they will always remain a useful electronic archive even after you start afresh using new software. Indeed, it would be good practice for all ELN users, irrespective of their level of contentment with their software, to make monthly PDF exports and to store these in multiple locations.

 

Which ELN would be best for me/my group?

A few basic questions might help to define your needs and filter the choices:

Do you have a budget? Most commercial ELN vendors offer a free cloud-based service for individual users, but check carefully for limitations (e.g. storage capacity) that might eventually require you to upgrade to a paid plan, inevitably after you've ingested a lot of data and invested a lot of effort in building your documentation system. 

Will you be using this software independently, or as a group? There are some very useful, self-contained and cheap packages available for individual users who don't need all the bells and whistles of a full ELN system.

Do you need supervisor features, like a 'dashboard' overview of your group's activity, or commenting/discussion functions? 

Are you looking for to deploy at departmental/institutional level? If a site-wide deployment of a single product is essential, then you may have to acknowledge that, sadly, you probably won't please everyone. Rather than striving to provide the most comprehensive feature-set possible, your institution may be better served with a basic set of 'core' functions that are more universally relevant.

Was operating systems will you use? Most ELN products are browser-based and therefore OS agnostic, but, as with many other complex online services, they may not be fully compatible with ALL browsers. There are some platform-specific apps on the market, which might be of interest, or could quickly be excluded from your search.

What devices will you use to operate the ELN software? Many people require to create or update records 'live' on the bench or other experimental areas, as well as on other devices inside and outside of the lab. Others may prefer to use voice recognition tools, or to continue to scribble hand-written notes and then transcribe into a tidier, more organised record on a single computer later. Note that some vendors may charge additional fees for apps to run their software on different device types.

Does your funding agreement require specific data security/compliance measures? Some funding agencies require all data to be securely stored, in a geographic location that ensures compliance with local data protection regulations (e.g. GDPR). Some ELN systems, however, are designed to store content and data only in their own servers (i.e. in 'the Cloud'). Large groups/departments may be able to negotiate bespoke local installations that are fully compliant, but if you are a small group without sufficient negotiating power, you may need to seek guidance/approval from your funding agency, or restrict your choice of ELN products to those that permit local storage.

 

Evaluating the product

When experimenting with the software, consider the following list of functions and features 

  • Interface design. Do you like the ‘look and feel’ of the software? Is it easy and intuitive to use? Does it seem efficient and well-designed?
  • Workflow suitability. Does the software enable you to describe your normal working methods well? Does it suit your experiments?
  • Content creation tools. Test all the writing and drawing tools, annotation features etc. Does the software support markup language, mathematical equations, chemical structures etc?
  • Data management/storageAre you able to upload files of typical type/format/size? If there is a file-size limit, how are larger files handled?Can you upload multiple files at the same time? Do you like how the software stores/presents the catalogue of uploaded files? Does the file handling seem fast enough? How is your data backed up?
  • Integration with other software and/or online services. Some ELN products offer integration with Office applications, statistics software, institutional storage, data repositories etc. Do these features seem well designed and useful to you?
  • Collaboration features. Are you able to share resources/comments with members of your group? Can you invite people outside of your group to view or contribute to your ELN?
  • PI/supervisor features. Does the platform provide adequate oversight of your group's activities, and tools for you to provide feedback? Can you control levels of access to resources for your group members?
  • Export features. Can you export pages/experiments/data in a format that’s useful? Can you export the entire notebook in PDF or other formats?

 

Some current ELN products

DISCLAIMER: This table was last updated on 9th April 2018, and product information may have changed since then without notification - please visit the vendors' websites for accurate, up-to-date information.

Key:

Suitability:

I = appropriate for individual users;
G = has supervisor/collaboration features, suitable for group use
D = suitable for large-scale, managed deployment

Platform:

B = Browser-based. platform agnostic
M = Macintosh application available
W = WIndows application available
L = Linux application available
I = iOS app available
A = Android app available

Storage:

VC = Vendor cloud
PC = Private cloud
3C - 3rd Party cloud
AWS = Amazon Web Services
HD = User's hard disk
LS = Local server
D = Can be synced with Dropbox
G = Can be synced with Google Drive

Free/cost:

F = Free option (may be time-limited, or capacity-limited)
O = Open Source version available
€ = Less than 10$ / user / month (may be capacity-limited)
€€ = Between 10$ - 20$ / user / month (may be capacity-limited)
€€€ = More than 20$ / user / month (may be capacity-limited)
X = information not provided

 

Suitability Platform Storage Free/cost Comments
Benchling I, G B VC, D, G F Free (with capacity limitations) for academic users, user-friendly, self-contained cloud service, Molecular Biology bias. CRISPR tools.
Biovia G, D W, M VC, LS X ELN product has basic but robust feature set and workflow, strong in compliance, deployed campus-wide at some institutions. Part of a large suite of BIOVIA products
Chemotion I B VC, LS F, O Free, community-based chemistry tool with good collaboration features, but no conventional supervisor tools Source code available, so local instance and storage could be deployed.
Docollab

I, G, D

B VC F, €€€ Not specifically science-focused; well designed collaborative documentation platform, simple but robust feature set will be relevant/useful in many disciplines. Free for individual users.
e-Notebook G, D W LS X Complex interface, Chemistry/Pharma bias.
e-Workbook G, D B VC X Strong inventory management; Chem/Pharma heritage, but integration with suite of Biotechnology tools promised in 2018.
eLabFTW G, D B LS F, O Free, flexible, open source, requires local server (Docker containers recommended). Community-driven development, sponsored by Institut Curie.
eLABJournal I, G, D B VC, PC, LS Comprehensive product with strong inventory management integration
Findings I M, I HD, D F, € Simple, lightweight, attractive interface, good synchronisation with Apple devices via Dropbox.
Hivebench I, G, D B, M, I VC, LS F, X New product - pilot deployment in one Cambridge research group has been a positive experience. Free (capacity-limited) cloud service; chargeable local server edition.
LabArchives I, G, D B, I, A VC F, €€ Comprehensive features including Graphpad Prism integration. [Trial comments (Cambridge only)]
LabCloud G, D B VC, LS F Free product, includes inventory management with procurement (and advertising) built-in. Funded by use of the vendor list in the procurement feature.
LabCollector G, D M, W, L VC, LS €€€ Strong LIMS with ELN functionality bolted-on. 
Labfolder I, G, D B VC, LS F, €€ Fully-featured product with clean design, good 3rd-party integrations and LIMS.
LabGuru G, D B AWS X Fully-featured and attractive design, but strong LIMS functionality complicates the interface and operation.
Labii I, G, D B AWS X Attractive, simple interface with good security/compliance features, voice recognition and bioinformatics service.
LabTrove G, D B LS (linux) F, O Build-it yourself system; free for local installation; will require a local system administrator. Website and documentation look a bit neglected.
Mbook I, G, D B VC, AWS, LS X Organic chemistry notebook; clean and modern design with built-in messaging
Openbis I B LS F, O Free, open source LIMS/ELN software for biologists/bioinformaticians. Browser-based, but designed to be installed and managed locally.
Open Science Framework I, G B 3C F, O Free, open source, single interface and workflow that integrates many other popular cloud software tools and services, good for collaborations and Open Science. [Trial comments (Cambridge only)]
OpenLab G, D B VC, LS X Desktop version looks dated compared to its iOS app sibling. Includes voice recognition and data collection features. Chemistry bias.
Quiver I M HD, D Not really designed for laboratory use, but a very popular notebook for programmers and useful for bioinformaticians. Mac platform, but a less functional iOS app is available too.
REDCap G, D B LS X Popular and adaptable tool, widely used in medical environments for gathering and managing clinical trials and questionnaire data.
RSpace I, G, D B VC F, € Free (community edition); fully-featured with many useful 3rd party integrations (e.g. Slack); exports all data in original file formats. [Trial comments (Cambridge only)] Spawned from eCat, which still remains as an inventory management system
Scilligence G, D B VC X Commercial product for cheminformatics and bioinformatics, leaning towards chemistry.
SciNote I, G, D B VC, LS F, X Not long established and the product is still evolving rapidly. Attractive interface, includes useful non-linear experimental design feature. [Trial comments (Cambridge only)]
Signals G, D B AWS X Multi-discipline-relevant features, but pitched as a Chemistry notebook, with Chemdraw built-in.
SLIMS G, D B VC, LS X Predominantly a LIMS, but with ELN functionality built-in. Includes R scripting.

If you are aware of any errors or omissions in the above list, please feel free to send corrections to .

 

Appendix 1 - Comments received in the 2017 trial  (129KB PDF, Cambridge only) 

Appendix 2 - marketing/training material produced for the 2017 trial:

rSpace: Presentation Training
LabArchives: Presentation Training
sciNote: Presentation Training
Open Science Framework: Presentation Training