The Use of Collaborative ELN Solutions Within Chemistry Research

Milou van der Lans 12th November 2019

Lab collaboration in the age of technology

Seasoned researchers will tell you that collaboration is the bread and butter of any scientific research project. In recent years, the space wherein collaboration occurs is changing: the way many chem researchers are collaborating within their research is evolving with the introduction of new technologies on the market.

Electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are becoming more commonly used among chemistry researchers in both academia and industry. Promoting team productivity, a spike in the number of chemistry researchers using the Labstep ELN in the past year prompted investigation into the use of collaborative research tools. Providing chemistry-specific tools and functionality within the ELN, Labstep is in a unique position to observe the adoption of collaboration-dedicated features, without infringing on user privacy and GDPR rights.

Chemists take the collaborative lead

Among current Labstep users, 30% of users carry out research within the field of chemistry. Observing this cohort of ~ 600 users, chemists were found to make significantly more use of team communication features: chemistry researchers were found to be six times more likely to comment on shared research records than molecular biology users. Focussing on specific record types, the discrepancy ranged from 20% more on experiment records to 50% more on protocols. Interestingly, chemistry researchers showed a 3-fold increase in collaborative commentary on resource and inventory records compared to any other scientific field on Labstep.

Is there strength in larger numbers?

Whether use of collaborative features in an ELN solution is reflective of comparatively greater collaboration among chemistry researchers in and around the lab remains unclear. To further understand, current Labstep chemistry users were asked about their thoughts on these findings and whether they believe increased teamwork within and between labs was effective towards better quality research.

Of the fifteen chemistry researchers interviewed, six were unconvinced that a more collaborative team lead to better data. There was agreement that collaboration is essential to the research being carried, however, not all collaborative input was deemed effective. Many of the interviewees explained this due to a disproportionate amount of irrelevant contributions. If the cooperating team is too large, a portion of the shared information and meetings was considered not directly relevant to the individual’s work, deeming time spent on teamwork less effective. When asked whether they believed adopting an ELN solution would positively contribute to this challenge, the response was more nuanced. With the added functionality of searching and filtering through shared data and the benefit of turning on notifications for information only relevant to them, team members said they can be more productive within their teams.

Conversely, 9 of those interviewed detailed that the larger a collaborative team, the larger the positive effects of their teamwork. Many stated larger teams mean that work is less likely to be duplicated and that the variety of skills brought together leads to quicker problem solving.

Open science as the ultimate global collaboration

If indeed researchers in the chemistry field value collaboration comparatively more, what could be attributed to this? In the past 30 years, the field has undergone a slow shift to being more in favour of open science. Open Science represents a new approach to the scientific process based on cooperative work and new ways of diffusing knowledge by using digital technologies and new collaborative tools (European Commission, 2016b:33). With globally accessible platforms such as and - who enable the sharing of projects, data, and materials through digital tools - getting more traction, the positive attitude change to data sharing may be penetrating through to the individual lab level.

To conclude, the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution has allowed for easier data sharing methods among chemistry scientists. Nonetheless, in order for open science to have a genuinely positive impact, it is imperative that the level of detail provided in open records is thorough enough to allow for reproducibility. This is where ELNs enter the scene: by recording the exact research methods used and tracking real-time deviations with minimal effort, platforms such as Labstep can provide the key to a fruitful global sharing system in chemistry research.

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