Electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) were developed to keep track of experiments and data so that scientists could review their work in a single place and easily reproduce experiments. Many ELNs started out as electronic versions of paper lab notebooks. Now, the most advanced ELNs offer an extensive platform to facilitate work within an organization.

While ELNs have improved over time, they vary significantly when it comes to features and functionality. Ultimately, the most advanced ELNs quicken research and development workflows enabling faster scientific breakthroughs.

ELNs are just not used for research. “Over 90% of Benchling users implement ELNs in labs that focus on both early discovery and more compliant QA/QC [Quality Assurance/Quality Control] procedures,” says Michael Schwartz, Head of Product Marketing, Benchling. “Like scientists, development, manufacturing, and quality teams also need tools for capturing processes and logging data during their day-to-day work.”

What to Look for

Organizations or departments looking for an advanced ELN solution should focus on three key areas: usability, data and analytics, and collaboration. Top-tier ELN solutions are easy to learn and simplify work for scientists and other teams within the organization.

These tools keep data in one place, so everyone who has secure access can reference key information, draw relevant insights, and collaborate with ease. This level of continuity can lead to important discoveries or process improvements in record time.

The Benefits

ELNs are designed to help scientists work faster, collaborate better, and simplify their daily life. For example, scientists can log experiments digitally to create a virtual system of record and colleagues can access these secure entries at any time, which is difficult with a paper lab notebook.

“ELNs make it easier for researchers to search through experimental information and data. With the most advanced platforms, you can quickly filter for specific cell lines or other reagents from an experiment or process in a few seconds,” says Schwartz. “Different teams can have access to this information as well, which provides them with a full, traceable history of data throughout a product’s lifecycle.”

Centralizing data is an opportunity. Information from complex studies can be centrally organized, tying experiments to results for faster data analysis. Quick access to data and their insights is increasingly important as companies are exploring new innovations that involve complex modalities and many teams.

Barriers to Acceptance

The reliance on legacy tools or systems is one of the biggest barriers to accepting and adopting ELNs. According to Schwartz, learning a new tool can be viewed as difficult, especially if it does not offer significant value compared to what is already in use.

The best ELNs today provide more than a digital version of a paper lab notebook, and give scientists and technical professionals, regardless of their geographical location, the functionality needed to collaborate, log information, and analyze results, all in one place.

Mitigating Implementation Challenges

Schwartz says that the two main challenges that often occur when implementing a new ELN platform into an organization’s infrastructure are adoption and integration with other software and instruments.

“When first transitioning to an ELN, there may be hesitancy to make the switch,” says Schwartz. “Instead of quickly jotting down tables, drawing chemical compounds, and pasting or taping in gels, plasmid maps, graphs, and other information, you have to learn the ELN’s interface, which may be challenging to some.” For a smooth and successful implementation, Schwartz advises that users take advantage of the software training and onboarding sessions.

Another potential hurdle is that most ELNs only support a portion of a lab’s entire digital workflow. This requires organizations to integrate ELNs with other software and instruments to fully connect their digital lab and benefit from searchability, traceability, and insight-generating functions.

Top-tier ELNs easily integrate with software and lab instruments. They centralize lab operations in a central digital location so teams always know where to go for tasks, information, and data. “The key selection criterion for finding a tool that fits into your ecosystem is a modern ELN that broadly supports the organization,” emphasizes Schwartz.

The Future

With the emergence of new tools and technologies, biotechnolgoy is in the midst of a generational expansion from chemistry to biology and has the potential to rewrite life as we know it in the 21st century. Fully digital recordkeeping is clearly the future of the modern life science R&D and commercial labs.

ELNs are a powerful and essential part of that future. When scientists and organizations overcome physical and mental barriers to modernize and digitize their scientific processes for designing studies, and acquiring and analyzing data, they will be creating a valuable investment and resource that enhances innovation.

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