Choosing an ELN

Last semester I spent the majority of my time deciding on what was important in research and how that could be incorporated into the ideal ELN.  Starting this semester, my goal is to choose 3-5 ELNs that are currently on the market and have different research groups across Columbia test them out and choose which one performs to their satisfaction.  Before recruiting research groups, I need to choose ELNs that both encompass criteria allowing it to replace a PLN as well as have some sort of free trial so that I could try it out and decide if it will fit in with a research driven faculty member.  Furthermore, the ELN must have a fairly intuitive user interface for me to navigate around and should be easy to install.

Based on my research from last semester, there is a range of potential ELNs from open-source, “make it yourself” software to companies that provide a user interface, and store and protect data.  These ELNs were narrowed to a group that, based on their websites/advertising, appeared to fill the necessary requirements to replace PLNs.  These choices were: LabArchives, eCAT, iLabber, LabTrove, GitHub, WordPress/blog, Perkin Elmer, Open Atrium, and Etherpad/Google Drive.  Here’s why each is or isn’t likely to be selected for testing by faculty.


Because this ELN is not compatible with Mac OS, faculty members will likely not test it.  Because people tend to use different operating systems, it is important that the ELN can work for all operating systems to allow for better collaboration.  Upon trying to download a free trial, I was notified that a version for Mac OS was not yet available, but will be in the future.  Due to time constraints, this essentially eliminated this ELN because we want it to be convenient to access to all faculty members who choose to use it.  This may be a viable option in the future, should they come out with a version compatible with Mac OS.


I am currently testing out a free trial of eCAT.  This web-based program was easy to get access to and was fairly easy to navigate around.  I have yet to test it out on my tablet to see if everything renders well enough for it to be used as a cross-platform tool.  While I do believe it could be a bit more intuitive, I think it has a lot of features to offer and could be suitable for a faculty member depending on how they plan to use it.  With that being said, this will likely be selected for faculty members to test out.


This ELN offered a free trial; however, I was required to submit my personal information, which would be used to contact me after the trial ended to discuss purchasing and training.  Because other options are available, I decided to pass on this ELN because if I would have to give my information, all of the faculty trying it would too.  This presents a situation that essentially forces faculty members to discuss purchasing a product that they may not be interested in and would likely result in some faculty members testing other ELNs while avoiding signing up for the free trial for this ELN.  While we don’t want each individual faculty to be contacted, we may look into getting a site license at a future date.


After downloading the initial LabTrove files, I discovered that the program actually required the installation of other software from the command line that would only work on machines running Debian.  Assuming that most faculty members are not running Debian as their primary OS, I decided not to use this ELN.  Furthermore, the amount of time needed to install this ELN might be an issue, especially if the faculty installing the software are not familiar with prompts and navigating and installing from the command line.


While not technically an ELN, GitHub offers a space for research faculty to share and interact with other research groups.  The main problem with GitHub is that it requires learning different code syntax in order to operate it.  Because of this, I decided not to use this as an ELN.


Similar to GitHub, WordPress or some other type of blog isn’t necessarily an ELN; however, it will provide an easy means to share data over a group of people.  One of the major flaws of a blog environment would be the lack of proper formatting when it comes to data entry.  For example, it would take more work to enter in a spreadsheet worth of data, or type out a certain equation.  Because this would probably be more time consuming than preparing a PLN, I decided to forgo this option.

Perkin Elmer

The ELN Perkin Elmer offers has so far been the easiest to use for me while also offering options such as procedure templates to make research more streamlined.  Because the interface is web-based, it also worked on my tablet but wasn’t the most friendly environment in terms of font size and selecting different options.  Despite this, the fact that I was still able to view and edit experiments on my tablet makes this option extremely portable and allows for potentially using it directly at or away from the lab bench.  This ELN will probably be selected for faculty members to test.

Open Atrium

This is another open source platform that works with Drupal to allow users to create and manage their own website.  The goal of Open Atrium is to provide an environment that makes it easy to build a collaborative website with features such as drag and drop widgets.  It also claims to work on a variety of systems, making it easy to transfer from doing work on a mac or pc to a tablet.  The biggest downside to an ELN like this is it’s required knowledge of a new software platform.  Furthermore, the fact that it’s open source means that developers could ditch a project that a faculty member uses frequently.  This can be frustrating and potentially detrimental to the ELN, therefore, this environment will not be used.

Etherpad/Google Drive

A benefit of Google Drive or other collaboration tools such as Etherpad is that they offer real time viewing of people making changes to documents.  This could be helpful if a protocol or procedure needs to be revised by a lab.  Also, because Google Drive will store this document for you, it is possible to share all documents within the lab by creating a single Google account for the lab that everyone has access to.  While this method is not exactly defined as an ELN, it does help with collaboration and storing all documents in one place.  The biggest downside to something like this is probably the lack of digital signatures to prove from an observer that the data was collected ethically.

Once I have chosen the ELNs, I plan to disperse them to faculty members who are interested in making the switch or would just like to help test the ELNs.  The faculty will have a certain amount of time to test and comment on each ELN about their performance and what they liked and didn’t like.  I am also developing a rubric that faculty members will fill out to evaluate each ELN.  Once each faculty member has evaluated all the ELNs, further steps will need to be taken to see if the chosen ELN will be satisfactory for all faculty and plans will be put in place to incorporate it into as many labs as possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *