lectronic lab notebooks vs paper notebooks

Largest study on user perception of electronic lab notebooks published

The recent study published in the Journal of Cheminformatics: Electronic lab notebooks: can they replace paper? tackles the subject of electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) and one of the most important questions – Can ELNs replace paper notebooks in today’s digital age?

This is the largest study so far, which focuses on user perception of ELNs, market trends and market barriers. The paper gives a detailed insight not only in which direction ELN market is moving but also why the ELN adoption is so slow.

Here, we will summarize key barriers to faster ELN adoption and solutions on how to tackle them.


Barrier 1 – Price and what to do when lab’s budget is limited?

When talking about ELN costs and limited budgets, “a large percentage of survey respondents indicated that cost was a significant barrier to ELN adoption. This includes financial outlay, staff hours, troubleshooting, and the fact that long-term use is likely to require on-going maintenance and support.” Besides that, academic institutions tend to think about the long term, so they need a solution for which they are sure that there will be no sharp changes in costs, once they establish the system within their institution.


For academic labs with limited budgets, the study describes a couple of solutions. Even though most ELNs available in the market today are proprietary, open source and free ELNs are becoming more common. It is important to distinguish here between free trials or demo versions of some ELNs, and ELNs that offer free accounts with full functionality and claim that free accounts will not be charged for in the future. It is advisable to go through these details with the ELN support team before implementing an ELN in your lab, because, as previously mentioned, you want to avoid any unnecessary costs that might affect your institutions budget too much in the future.

Concerns that arise about free or open source ELNs (that might or might not be free) are data security and longevity of the software. But we would like to point out here that these concerns should be addressed when talking about proprietary ELNs as well. As stated in the article, “Both Open Source and Proprietary projects will always be at risk of ceasing to continue, either due to lack of funds or the original developers leaving the project. However, given the licensing of Open Source projects which makes it possible to view and change the source code, other developers are able to access, update and support the software.” Don’t confuse access to the source code to access to your data. Researchers who decide to upgrade or change the source code of an open source software will do that for themselves and choose if they want to make the improvements available to the rest of the scientific community or not. But they cannot access your data. As well as you cannot access theirs.

You might also be interested in:  Major Concerns, Hacks & Lost Data When Using Online Lab Notebooks


Barrier 2 – Ease of use

During the recent webinar about the use of ELNs, KLemen Zupancic, the CEO of sciNote described why keeping all records on paper is unfortunately becoming impossible: “We love paper, there are many benefits to paper notebooks, but there are many limitations as well. For example, we have to have a linear thought process when we’re doing science. You put the entry of what happened today, then tomorrow etc. But science is different. You always start in one direction, come back, restart and grow from there. It is a scattered approach, and when you add collaboration to this, then paper is unfortunately a limitation in the process… If we are using paper notebooks, it is impossible to connect them to all the digital data that we are producing at the same time. So if I’m doing measurements, I have to store excel spreadsheets somewhere. Either on my laptop or on the server of the University. It is hard to connect those spreadsheets to my paper notebook unless I’m printing them out and pasting them in the notebook. With the rapid growth of data, this will slowly become impossible.”

In the study, respondents were asked about how important the ease of use is for them (if they are to switch from paper to digital for example):

“… 99% of respondents indicated that ease of use would influence their ELN choice, with almost 80% rating it as very important. One comment reflected the desire for a flexible generic solution, rather than an ELN designed for a specific research area, due to anxieties that their research “doesn’t fit neatly into one category”.


The process of scientific exploration and discovery is often unpredictable and not entirely linear, so an ELN would need to provide the flexibility to researchers to use it as best fits their needs. On the other hand, it is necessary that an ELN provides more lab-oriented functionalities than the generally used note keeping applications such as Evernote, OneNote and similar. For example, the ability for the user to manage sample or protocol repositories, defining protocols and experiments, linking samples with results etc.


Barrier 3 – Accessibility issues across different devices and operating systems

The studies detailed in this paper indicated worries about the ability to extract and move data between different ELNs and lab instruments; and whether this would result in data duplication.

“…74% expressed concerns about needing to enter data in both the lab and write-up area, due to a lack of suitable hardware or software capabilities to facilitate ELN usage inside and outside the lab. This can lead to copying and pasting printouts into paper notebooks and manually transcribing data between notebooks and computers; which can result in data loss, transcription errors and records stored haphazardly. Popular suggestions were to use mobile computers or tablets for portability in and out of the lab, and that web-based ELNs could improve accessibility.”


It is important that an ELN supports all types of data, which enables researchers to store everything in one place. From pictures to excel sheets, researchers today generate vast amounts of digital data during their work. It is already becoming impossible to keep track of it all in paper notebooks.

The authors describe the role which ELNs will have in the age of digital data: “We believe that ELNS will significantly improve reproducibility of scientific experiments, contribute to the data traceability and data annotation and enable scientists to collaborate and share results in an intuitive manner. The wider adoption of ELNs will facilitate interoperability which will ultimately change the ways scientists perform experiments and manage their data.”


How does sciNote fit into the picture?

sciNote has been developed based on the feedback from the labs about every detail of the software – from the graphical user interface to project & experiment design functionalities.

“Taking the path towards interoperability, sciNote has been designed in a modular way and released under the Open Source licence (Mozilla Public Licence). Based on the user needs they are developing new add-ons and at the same time they are encouraging the community to develop their own add-ons, similar to the packages concept of R-statistical. In this way, every lab will be able to design their own ELN to fit their needs, which will help them manage their project, share research, gather the metadata directly from instruments and connect with existing software and databases.”


Useful links:

Read the full article here: Electronic Laboratory Notebooks: Can They Replace Paper?

You can create your free account in sciNote here: Sign Up

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By Tea Pavlek, MSc


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