Electronic Laboratory Notebooks

The subject of Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELN’s) has become one of the hot topics in laboratory environments over the past few years, if you want to read about it, buy book reports to learn about electronic lab notebooks: what are the benefits of notebooks and should they be included in the learning process. On the one hand, it may seem surprising that at the start of the 21st century, the bound paper laboratory notebook is still the medium in which most experiments are documented, but on the other hand, there are some good reasons why the move away from paper has been treated with a good deal of caution. However, there is a growing trend towards an electronic solution for documenting experiments (based on expected productivity gains) that will drive an enhanced approach to managing scientific knowledge.

Computers and information technology have penetrated almost every aspect of laboratory work over the past few decades, but even today, scientists still turn to the bound paper notebook, a pen, scissors and adhesive tape to fully document their experiments in a way that is compliant with legal and regulatory requirements, and that meets their corporate requirements for intellectual property protection. However, the continued use of a reliable, convenient and trusted medium such as paper has its drawbacks too. In an age where the rapid dissemination of information is considered fundamental to collaboration and team working, and where easy access to existing information is critical, the right information technology infrastructure, the right tools and the right processes are critical enablers to support the creation, sharing and re-use of an organisations explicit knowledge.

The argument for an electronic solution is becoming increasingly powerful as one by one the objections to the transition from paper to electronic weaken. So what are the major objections? Basically they can be considered to fit into three different categories. Firstly, from a business perspective, there have been concerns about the admissibility of electronic records in support of patent interferences and patent infringements, there are concerns about the costs associated with an electronic solution, and in some instances there may be concerns regarding compliance issues. Secondly, from a technology perspective, there has been, and still exists a certain amount of doubt about the available technologies that are able to preserve electronic records over the long term. And thirdly, from a user perspective, there is the worry about change management and the impact upon scientists of replacing an established and proven documentation process.

In its simplest form, an electronic laboratory notebook can be considered to be a direct replacement for the paper lab notebook. In this instance, it can provide the generic functionality to support ‘broad’ documentation processes that include patent evidence creation, cross discipline collaboration and general record keeping.

However, the integration capabilities that we readily associate with information technology raise the possibility of a tighter coupling of other laboratory systems into the ‘electronic laboratory notebook’. In other words, can the information that is printed from other ‘deep’ or ‘specific’ laboratory systems and then cut out and pasted into the paper lab notebook be electronically entered or linked into the electronic laboratory notebook? For example, systems that provide chemical structure drawing, structure and sub-structure searching, compound registration, etc. are an integral part of the chemistry laboratory’s process, and therefore would be expected to become part of an electronic solution. Similarly, other scientific disciplines will have specific requirements consistent with their particular laboratory processes. Diagram 1 illustrates the relationship between ‘broad’ (generic) and ‘deep’ (specific) systems.

Another way of looking at this is to define an information structure (see diagram 2) that identifies how different systems fit into the laboratory architecture. The generic function of an electronic laboratory notebook supports the ‘experimentation’ layer, and contains abstractions from the lower data levels.

So in terms of ‘what is an electronic laboratory notebook?’, the CENSA (1) definition; “A system to create, store, retrieve, and share fully electronic records in ways that meet all legal, regulatory, technical and scientific requirements” is all encompassing, and can therefore mean different things to different scientists. For this reason, a clearly defined understanding of the role that the electronic laboratory notebook is going to play in a given organisation is absolutely essential at the start of an electronic laboratory notebook project.

1. CENSA – The Collaborative Electronic Notebook Systems Association