Over the course of about 2 months, I have been researching not only currently available electronic lab notebooks (ELN’s), but comparing and contrasting the characteristics of these notebooks to learn more about how they will fit in to the overall flow of an experimental design. My first step in finding an ideal ELN was to perform a simple Google search and find what companies are out there that offer this service. To my surprise, many of the companies in question don’t offer what I was expecting: a simple replacement of the paper lab notebook with something like an iPad or Android tablet and app. Despite this, I continued my search and found about 10 options that could at least be a start in transitioning from paper to completely digital. Most of these options seem to focus on the topics of collaboration, creation of protocol templates, and audit trail establishment. Two examples of the ELN’s I found are labarchives, and eCAT. From that point, I decided to review the options more closely and make a table comparing them in the following 7 categories: security, storage space, upload limit, price, protocol template availability, collaboration, and producible audit trail. This revealed the pros and cons of each system and revealed that there wasn’t one single ELN that immediately jumped out and was leaps and bounds better than any other ELN. An example of the table is shown below highlighting the features of labarchives and eCAT.
As it became evident that no one solution would satisfy all of a researcher’s needs, questions began to come up about the experimental process and how ELN’s compared to standard paper lab notebooks throughout the research process. This prompted me to develop several flow charts that outline the roles of both ELN’s and paper lab notebooks in the research workflow to graphically show what properties of ELN’s are necessary to make it a viable and worthwhile option. Furthermore, I added options that I think will be important in the future ELN’s (many of which are in the “communication” category) and greyed out others to show where the technology may be headed and to show the potential power of ELN’s if they are to be universally adopted. I made two additional flow charts to illustrate both the data collection and data retrieval process and asked several questions about storing and harvesting data, while comparing the effects that either a paper lab notebook or ELN would have on the specific questions. All flowcharts can be seen below.
The work done so far tries to lay a landscape for the benefits of having an ELN over a paper lab notebook. Going forward, this information will be useful for weighing the pros and cons of incorporating ELN’s into the Columbia faculty’s labs. Towards the end of the semester we hope to line up at least a couple of the companies for trial licenses that professors will be able to utilize to see what works for them. Once we have a general idea of what the needs of the Columbia community are, we can hopefully start integrating some of the main highlights of ELN’s and begin the transition from paper to digital.