Electronic Lab Notebooks: One notebook to rule them all, a dream or a curse?

I often get asked, “What is your main tip for implementing an Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN)?” or “I want to implement an ELN, which one should I choose?” Or even “Why haven’t most universities implemented ELNs yet?”. We live in a digital age where we carry portable computers in our pockets, where we can remotely activate devices in our homes, and hoverboards even exist…kinda!

How on earth are we so technologically behind when it comes to recording our data in the laboratory? If you teleported someone from the past into most aspects of our present, they would be amazed by the overwhelming leaps and bounds that we have made, but if you did the same thing with a laboratory, it might be harder to gauge that level of progress. 

So why aren’t universities falling over themselves to implement ELNs? Surely there is an ELN out there to “rule them all?”. Unfortunately, Sauron doesn’t deal in the ELN business, and as such, this is a much more complicated affair. 

Choice: The hardest choices require the strongest will 

There are over 80 active ELN vendors on the market. How on earth are you supposed to wade through those to figure out which one you want to use? Or even, which one(s) would even be appropriate for the research you want to undertake? 

Diversity: There is no ELN to rule them all! 

The places where ELNs have been most successfully implemented are typically in industry. Now, some of this will obviously be because they have the money and more potential to persuade employees to use them, but the other much bigger reason is because often they are undertaking the same sort of work, which means if they can find an ELN that works for them, it can be implemented across the company. However, when we consider universities, they teach a range of sciences at an undergraduate level, which in itself would make it difficult to procure an ELN that would be useful for chemists, biologists, physicists, pharmacologists etc., just in terms of considering their teaching labs. When you consider the wider picture of the vast range of PhD and postgraduate research that goes on at universities, it would be impossible to choose an ELN that would support all those different requirements, and you would either end up with something far too generic, or something that was too specific to one subject and didn’t cater for all the rest. 

Cost: A burden to bear 

Cost is ALWAYS going to be a huge barrier. The cost for licensing fees, additional infrastructure costs, e.g., computers in the lab, maintenance costs, and potential future development costs. These are a big commitment, and finances aren’t always available, and even if they are, the commitment to spend a large amount of money on implementing a new system is always going to be tricky, and let’s not even start on how difficult it could be to persuade a procurement department to agree to buy one… 

Time: Mysterious thing, time 

It takes time to implement and learn any new system, and that is frequently a commodity that researchers lack. How many people want to upend their research time to try and use a new system? Of course, one could argue that the right ELN would save you time in the long run (which it almost certainly would) but it’s a big time cost up front to make that happen. 

Environment: Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance 

The lab is a pretty hostile environment for technology. There are risks of spilling chemicals on computers and keyboards, some have magnetised equipment that can destroy electronic devices, and many lack the space to put computers in or laptops down on the desk. There are also big concerns about cross-contamination. It’s one thing to use a computer in the laboratory, in that environment where you are potentially wearing gloves and have regimented hand washing procedures prior to leaving the lab, but it becomes a whole new ball game when you consider moving tech (e.g., laptops) between the lab and the office. No one wants to absentmindedly touch a contaminated laptop keyboard and then pick up their sandwich for lunch. 

Additionally, there is a lot of legacy hardware in the lab, both in terms of equipment and the computers that hook up to them. This makes it harder to integrate these pieces of equipment with modern systems, and means that those computers aren’t used because they are either running old operating systems, not connected to the internet, or people have simply got used to them being designated to those specific pieces of equipment. There can also be wifi issues in labs if a lot of researchers are using the internet, meaning that if the ELN requires an internet connection, this can make working unreliable. 

Trust: Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain. 

Trust in ELNs is a big issue for several reasons. Some researchers are concerned about the privacy aspects of putting their data into an ELN in case it gets hacked or exposed. There are also, quite rightfully, concerns that once you put data into an ELN, it could be very difficult to get it back out again. Some ELNs use proprietary formats that can’t be read by other pieces of software, or don’t facilitate the export of the ELN contents in machine-readable data formats. A full PDF export of your ELN data is not the most useful! 

Adoption: Progress is impossible without change 

Another big issue, possibly the biggest issue of all, is the human aspect of all this. People are frequently unwilling to change and adopt new ways of working. There are, again, very understandable concerns about implementing an ELN, such as how easy will it be to use? Will it cause me twice the work? Is there any point if everyone else doesn’t adopt it? 

So now I’ve laid out the litany of issues, you might be thinking, “Well, this is never going to work,” and yet…recent events have made me very hopeful for significant improvements in these areas. How, you ask? Well, you’ll have to find out in my companion article which you can read in the Lab Horizons Issue 2 – Digital Edition.

Samantha Pearman-Kanza

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