Changing Your Habits


    When I first started working in my current job at this biotech startup I wanted to see if I could bring something new to the way I organized my experiments and shed some of my old academic habits of doldrum. I decided to jump onto the bandwagon of Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELNs). I quickly signed onto SciNote, one of the leading ELNs and, after talking with the management team, decided to stay with using it for the duration of my time in the lab.

    ELNs are essentially online cloud storage platforms that are set to replace the traditional lab notebook - think of them as Dropbox for the lab. Instead of writing down protocols, large amounts of data and administrative rules for the lab in a physical book you can now upload everything onto the cloud. This allows everyone who has secure access to be able to see your lab book instantly. Potentially this could help share data between lab personnel and between collaborators more quickly and accurately. Online reviews of ELNs have hailed them as the future of knowledge-sharing platforms. But traditionalists and labs that have settled into a fixed way of managing projects will probably detest the idea.

    Here are some advantages of ELNs I can think of:

    - ELNs have been granted the same validity as paper records.
    - 17% of all research data is lost in physical lab notebooks.
    - You can search through your entire lab book for a specific query on a piece of data quickly.
    - Upload different files (word, ppt, txt, jpeg, tiffs) instantly.
    - Upload large amounts of data directly from a computer integrated with the ELN cloud.
    - You will not have to worry about reading illegible handwriting anymore.
    - Generate reports and even use the platform to help formulate a manuscript quickly.
    - Experimental lab records must be signed and validated in order for drug product development to move through the FDA approval process. This is part of a regulation that must be satisfied for Good Laboratory Practices (GLP) Studies (21 CFR Part 11).

    Here are some disadvantages of ELNs:

    - Privacy could potentially be breached by bad actors / hackers. Given the number of issues we now have with personal data breaches and sharing with third party advertisers this could be a big concern for many people moving into online repositories of data.
    - Updating electronic notebooks can still be as manually intensive and tedious as writing notes in paper lab books.
    - Changing from a system of written notes to electronic notes takes a long time for larger labs that are used to doing things a certain way. This can also be time-consuming.
    - You must have access to the internet and an electronic device at all times to read the notes.
    - ELNs can charge a lot for their premium services, such as larger amounts of data storage and validation signatures.
    - Adding extra people onto an ELN platform can also incur extra costs. This could be frustrating when just one or two new people join a lab and want to briefly look at your old data.

    My traditional laboratory notebook:

    My SciNote ELN with various windows open showing my workflow through various projects:

    How ever you look at it, ELNs are probably here to stay for good. There is an increasing push in our culture to automate dull and mundane work as well as to share our growing amounts of data with a wider range of audience. There may well be a day when the more tedious jobs of pipetting and pouring liquids at the laboratory bench are totally eliminated for human beings (thus eliminating the need for technicians, graduate students and postdocs). But when that day comes, ELNs will provide a vital role for scientists managing projects to make the important Go-No-Go decisions on innovative experiments.


    Image from: Kowk R, How to pick and electronic laboratory notebook, NatureĀ 560, 269-270 (2018)