Ten years ago, when I was working as a research associate in the biotech industry, someone suggested we switch to a digital form of notebooks. At the time, we all thought she was crazy. And, at the time, we were right. No one had smart phones, at least none of us actually working in the labs. Very few even had MP3 players. We weren’t constantly attached to our devices and so the idea of an electronic device replacing our trusty paper notebooks was simply unrealistic.
Over the past decade, many of those early electronic lab notebooks (or ELNs) have come and gone. Their software was too specific and too limited. Those that offered more in the way of convenience or ease of use also came with price tags. Now, software companies have gotten smarter. They offer lighter versions for free, get you hooked on their software and then you can upgrade for a price. They are the new corner dealers, some might say. These newer versions have a lot of promise. They purportedly make your projects more organized, streamlined, easier to search and share, and ultimately, make research better.
Not convinced? Jim Giles wrote this news feature on the promise of ELNs.
When I started my new postdoc position a couple of months ago, my PI mentioned that I could choose my own format for my notebook, paper or digital. I hadn’t even considered an ELN as a possibility, and so I got to work to find the format that would best suit my needs. My requirements were that it be either free or very inexpensive, easy to use (I’m no computer wiz), support and import many different media formats, and have longevity.
That last requirement was a big one for me. I didn’t want to invest time in an ELN, only to have it be obsolete in a couple years and unattainable. These projects take years to complete and small details now may be hugely important later on. I need to be able to access my data for years to come.
By searching “electronic lab notebook”, “ELN”, and “Digital Lab Notebook”, you can quickly become overwhelmed with what is available. If you’re handy with software and HTML, you can even design your own. I’m not that crafty and so I focused on the following options. Each offered a free version. Some even offered interfacing between software on your laptop and apps on your tablet or phone. Most offer access to your notebooks even when you don’t have access to your laptop, either through cloud storage or linked accounts.
In the end, I decided to go with Microsoft OneNote. I’m in a PC lab and the software is supported by my university and the department. It just made sense. There’s a lot to know about this software, more than I’ve even touched on so far. Here’s the basics that I have discovered so far. You can have several “notebooks” and within each notebook, you have sections. Within each section, you can have separate pages. For instance, I have a project page in my primary cell culture section in my experiment notebook. I also have a notebook for notes from meetings and seminars, and another for the lab management tasks such as ordering supplies, inventory, etc. I can put links to protocols and databases right into each page, so the information retrieved is always up to date.
There are some downsides. Once I’ve planned a project, I generally have to print it out anyways so that it is handy when completing the experiment. This results in more notes scribbled on the fly. I can probably just enter these after the fact and somehow just make it traceable that these notes were added, perhaps using different font color. I still feel the need to keep the original notes, though, and so I keep a binder to put these into. One thing I would have liked, in this software, is the ability to scribble on a page. I can get around that using the paint software, but it’s an extra step. Perhaps if I did have an iPad to link to, this would be easier.
I wouldn’t go into an ELN blindly without having some idea of how you want it organized. If you’re not organized, it won’t magically sort and categorize for you. Spend some time and think about how you want to structure your notebook before starting. OneNote does offer an uncategorized page, but I try not to use this. My desk is messy enough with random pieces of paper, I don’t need my ELN to look like that too. However, it does solve the problem I always faced with a paper notebook in that my projects were always broken up and separated by other projects. With this, all the information pertinent to a project is on the same page.
When I informed my PI that I was going to go the ELN route, he offered one piece of advice. Make sure to print out a hard copy once in a while. No matter what else happens, you can always read paper. So while the ELN may finally become a reality in research labs and make us the most efficient scientists of all time (if you buy into the hype), we may never get away from the paper notebook. Afterall, you can’t argue with its longevity and technical support.