Choosing the right ELN for your research

Mckenna Beyer 12th July 2019

Today, more and more scientists are making the switch from the classic (but outdated) pen and paper method to an electronic lab notebook (ELN) system to keep lab records. There are various reasons that researchers are making this switch. Now more than ever, scientists are dealing with an increasing volume of data that the pen and paper method can’t accurately capture. Additional worry about reproducibility of results means accurate note keeping is a must to manage the trail of data from start to finish. Whatever your reason may be, switching to an ELN system will save you time (up to 9 hours a week!) and keep your experiments more organized and accessible.

Choosing the right ELN for yourself can be very difficult. In a case study done by Bristol-Myers Squibb there were 42 possible ELN vendors identified as viable options. Testing out all these options would be extremely overwhelming and time consuming. Luckily there are a few steps that can make the process of choosing the right ELN a lot easier.

1) Define what you need. Every lab or company will have different needs from an ELN. Before you take a look at all the options out there, you should take a look at what specific features or functionality you need. Having this in your mind will make the next step so much easier. You will be able to narrow the options down based on your definition of what an ELN should do for you.

2) Educate yourself on possible options. ELNs have been around for long enough that there have been comparison studies and guides published to help guide potential users. Check out the Gurdon Institute’s guide to ELNs to learn more about cost, customer support and data storage. This guide gives a brief overview on 30 of the most popular ELNs. If you want a more in depth look at competing ELN’s, head over to Harvard Medical School’s site and read over their guide to ELNs. This database gives a more exhaustive look at various ELN’s and their features including categories such as adaptability to lab workflows, storage, and security. Using your previously defined idea of what an ELN should do for you, you can then look at these lists and narrow them down to a select few that you think would meet your requirements.

3) Figure out finances. Depending on the size of your lab or company, you’re looking at prices from US$10 a month to $20k a year. Some companies offer a free version to those in academia but they often have hidden conditions. These conditions range from only being available to one user instead of to the whole lab, only having a limited amount of storage space or having restrictions on what you can do on the platform. One ELN that is offering the full range of features for free to academia is Labstep. Find out more here.

4) Consider different features. Can the ELN run on a mobile device such as a phone or a tablet? Can your integrate different software into the platform? Can you share your protocols and data with others in your lab? Is your work updated in real time? Can your lab notebook keep track of what solutions/chemicals you use and update you when you’re running low on something? All of these questions are good to keep in the back of your mind as you are examining different ELNs. While most ELNs are structured in a similar manner, it’s these little add-on features that could make or break it for your lab. If you’re in a lab group of 15 people and the functionality of the data sharing/collaboration feature isn’t extensive, then that ELN isn’t right for you.

5) Rank and then test drive. After viewing these different platforms with your goals in mind, narrow down the options. At this point you should have in mind what might work for you and what definitely wouldn’t. After ranking your ELN options, either sign up for a free trial or request a demo. Most ELNs offer free trials to interested customers where you are able to set up a video call and their team will walk you through the platform. This step should hopefully narrow it down even further to where you can actually pick the one you think will work best for your lab. Keep an open mind. Using an ELN comes with a learning curve so don’t be frustrated if you struggle to use it right away. Commit to this idea of change and work through the issues to acclimatize to this new way of data recording. It will take some time on the front end to input all your previous protocols and results but once you get the hang of it, using the ELN to keep your experimental records will be a breeze.

Hey there!

Only around 10% of scientists are using ELNs, despite their benefits. Props to you for being ahead of the game. Labstep is a flexible research environment that connects your notebook, inventory, applications and data in one collaborative workspace. Get started today, it's free!

Check out Labstep Our story