At Work

Why an ELN is Better than a Paper Lab Notebook

A lab notebook has long been an indispensable scientific tool. The humble notebook gives students and researchers alike a codified way to record all of their experiments and results. For decades, paper notebooks have been the norm. But as technology marches ever onward, the electronic lab notebook, or ELN, has started to overtake its analog counterpart.

Benefits of an ELN

An electronic notebook offers a variety of benefits: ease of use, accessibility, data integrity, facilitating collaboration, and more.

First, let’s consider ease of use. Today’s students and much of the workforce are all digital natives. They’ve grown up using computers and mobile devices, and are used to recording all of their data in a digital format. A high-quality ELN will easily interface with common applications such as Office and Adobe, to allow for transfer of data from different sources.

Another aspect of ease of use is accessibility. The sciences have a long way to go to make labs and conferences more accessible. Using an app on an electronic device allows students and professionals alike the ability to use any accessibility tools they may need in order to accommodate their abilities.

Data integrity is of paramount importance in all scientific research. While it is important for student researchers to learn how to ensure data integrity, it can be very beneficial to have software that is capable of enforcing the rules and not allowing non-compliant data entry.

Collaboration is becoming increasingly common in scientific fields, as different labs find unique uses for shared data sets, or work together to find a solution to a large problem (such as the COVID-19 pandemic). This collaborative spirit leads to more innovation, as labs don’t have to waste time duplicating work that has already been done (such as sequencing a genome). If two labs are using the same ELN system, it can be very easy to share data and experiment results, without worrying about errors from transcribing the information from a paper notebook.

More Than Just a Notebook

Many of the best ELN systems on the market do more than duplicate the abilities of a paper notebook. They often include other capabilities, such as project management modules, inventory management, instrument calibration, and more.

The benefits of using such an all-in-one system are clear. While individual solutions exist for all of these, there can be issues with cross-compatibility. By using an all-inclusive lab management system, a lab can ensure that all important data on inventory levels, experiment results, and instrument calibration is easily shared across the entire system, and that everyone has access to all of the information they need.

While some ELNs are highly specialized, many are designed to be configurable for any sort of lab, which means they can be adopted by universities and used across all scientific departments. This is a boon to students who can use the same system across all of their classes, rather than having to invest in and learn a new software system.

There is no doubt that some traditionalists will choose to stick with a paper notebook, but an electronic laboratory notebook offers so much more flexibility and utility. It’s no wonder that many students, universities, and research labs prefer them!