Electronic laboratory notebook

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Alexander Graham Bell's unpublished lab notebook, well before the invention of the ELN

An electronic laboratory notebook (also known as electronic lab notebook or ELN) is a software program or package designed to replace more traditional paper laboratory notebooks. Laboratory notebooks in general are used by scientists and technicians to document, store, retrieve, and share fully electronic laboratory records in ways that meet all legal, regulatory, technical and scientific requirements.[1] A laboratory notebook is often maintained to be a legal document and may be used in a court of law as evidence. Similar to an inventor's notebook, the lab notebook is also often referred to in patent prosecution and intellectual property litigation. Modern electronic lab notebooks have the advantage of being easier to search upon, support collaboration among many users, and can be made more secure than their paper counterparts.

History of the ELN

While some credit Dr. Keith Caserta with the concept of an electronic version of the laboratory notebook[2], it's likely that others had similar early ideas on how to integrate computing into the process of laboratory note taking.[3] Significant discussion concerning the transition from a pen-and-paper laboratory notebook to an electronic format was already in full swing in the early 1990s. During the 206th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in August, 1993, an entire day of the conference was dedicated to talking about "electronic notebooks" and ELNs.[4] "A tetherless electronic equivalent of the paper notebook would be welcomed by the working scientist," noted Virginia Polytechnic Institute's Dr. Raymond E. Dessy for the conference.[2] Dessy had in the mid-1980s begun postulating on the idea of an electronic notebook, and by 1994 he provided one of the first working examples of an ELN.[5]

By 1997, a special interest group called the Collaborative Electronic Notebook Systems Association (CENSA) formed. Supported by 11 major pharmaceutical and chemical companies, the consortium worked with scientific software and hardware vendors to facilitate the creation of an ELN that met the technical and regulatory needs of its members.[6] The consortium at that time envisioned a collaborative ELN that "teams of scientists worldwide can use to reliably capture, manage, securely share, and permanently archive and retrieve all common data and records generated by research and development and testing labs."[7] That same year development of an enterprise-wide ELN at Kodak's research facilities in England was in full swing. The Kodak ELN was "implemented as a collection of Lotus Notes databases and applications," making it arguably one of the first enterprise ELN solutions in use at the time.[8]

In 1998 one of the first web-based versions of an ELN was introduced in the form of the University of Oregon's Virtual Notebook Environment (ViNE), "a platform-independent, web-based interface designed to support a range of scientific activities across distributed, heterogeneous computing platforms."[9] This innovation would go on to inspire vendors in the 2000s to develop web-based thin-client ELNs for laboratories everywhere. Yet it likely wasn't until the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN) in June 2000 that the true legal implications of a fully electronic laboratory notebook would have on the industry. If an ELN were to be responsible for providing validation during the patent processes and be valid for other types of audits, a mechanism for authenticating the origin of the ideas would be necessary. The ESIGN act meant that electronic records could be authenticated and digital signatures made legally binding, lending further relevancy to ELNs. Instead of searching through notebooks and piles of documents, printing material, and submitting thousands of pages for an FDA audit, ELN users could suddenly collate and submit electronic records, saving time and headaches.[1]

Enthusiasm for ELNs began to pick up again in the early 2000s, with a strong case for further data integration into ELNs being made at the CENSA-supported International Quality & Productivity Center (IQPC) conference in London during September 2004. During that conference the push for stronger data integration was made, with the base premise that "ELNs would improve corporate strategy by allowing information to be used more intelligently with the help of decision-support software."[10] By early 2007, industry-specific ELNs were pushing growth in the market: Scientific Computing World estimated 83 percent of related organizations declaring interest in ELNs, with 43 percent of those organizations seriously considering an evaluation or purchase.[11]

Despite the beginnings of an economic downturn in the late 2000s, Atrium Research later estimated that the ELN's market potential was around $1.7 billion.[12][13] During this time scientists and academics—traditionally slow to adopt technological change—were gradually warming up to the benefits of an electronic laboratory notebook. Academics in particular realized the problems the high turnover postdoc rate created in research laboratories. Postdocs would depart from the university, leaving PIs and directors scratching their heads on where the data ended up. ELNs changed that, allowing much more persistent data that can be found and referenced even after a postdoc departs.[14]

The movement towards ELN integration into other laboratory functions during the 2000s eventually led to the blurring of what an ELN actually is. In early 2007 Scientific Computing World reported that the definition of an ELN varied among scientists, with 35 percent of them stating they were "clear about the difference between a LIMS and an ELN."[11] Today it's possible to see in some vendors' offerings the formerly distinct entity that was ELN to now be completely integrated into a LIMS.

Regulations and legal aspects

The laboratory accreditation criteria found in the ISO 17025 standard needs to be considered for the protection and computer backup of electronic records[citation needed]. These criteria can be found specifically in clause of the standard.

Electronic lab notebooks used for development or research in regulated industries, such as medical devices or pharmaceuticals, are expected to comply with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations related to software validation.[15] The purpose of the regulations is to ensure the integrity of the entries in terms of time, authorship, and content. Unlike ELNs for patent protection, the FDA is not concerned with patent interference proceedings, but rather with avoidance of falsification.

Typical provisions related to software validation are included in the medical device regulations at 21 CFR 820 (et seq.) and 21 CFR 11. Essentially, the requirements are that the software has been designed and implemented to be suitable for its intended purposes. Evidence to show that this is the case is often provided by a software requirements specification (SRS) that lays out the intended uses and needs that the ELN will meet. The SRS typically includes one or more testing protocols that, when followed, demonstrate that the ELN meets the requirements of the specification and that the requirements are satisfied under worst-case conditions. Security, audit trails, prevention of unauthorized changes without substantial collusion of otherwise independent personnel (i.e. those having no interest in the content of the ELN such as independent quality unit personnel) are all fundamental to the ELN. Finally, one or more reports demonstrating the results of the testing in accordance with the predefined protocols are required prior to release of the ELN software for use. If the reports show that the software failed to satisfy any of the SRS requirements, then corrective and preventive action (CAPA) must be undertaken and documented. Such CAPA may extend to minor software revisions, or changes in architecture or major revisions. CAPA activities need to be documented as well.[16]

Modern features of an ELN

ELNs are generally divided into two categories[11]:

  • A "specific" ELN contains features designed to work within specific applications, scientific instrumentation, or data types.
  • A cross-disciplinary or "generic" ELN is designed to support access to all data and information that needs to be recorded in a lab notebook.

Among these two general categories are ELNs that capture two particular markets: individual researchers and group research teams. ELNs can be tailored to one or both types of markets, with both groups and individuals benefiting from the ELN's inherent ability to add structure to research records. Groups utilizing an ELN typically require two additional abilities: to share research data and communicate about their research.[17]

Modern features include, but are not limited to[18][19][20][dead link][21]:

  • importation of data which has already been captured elsewhere
  • direct recording of data in various forms like text, images, and tables
  • ability to search for and reuse documented information
  • lending of structure to data and information through the use of preformatted or customizable templates which include a range of field types
  • creation of links between records, including reference managers and other notebooks
  • storage of fully searchable records in a secure database format, with automatic backup
  • inclusion of a messaging system for better collaboration
  • inclusion of safety data, including flags for dangerous chemicals
  • protection of the integrity of both data and process in a secure yet flexible environment, all while allowing for process changes
  • generation of secure forms that accept laboratory data input via a computing device and/or laboratory equipment
  • accommodation for networked or wireless communications
  • accommodation of a scheduling option for routine procedures such as equipment qualification and study-related timelines
  • configuration of qualification requirements

ELN vendors

See the ELN vendor page for a list of ELN vendors past and present.

Further reading


  1. 1.0 1.1 Zall, M. (2001). "The nascent paperless laboratory". Chemical Innovation 31 (2): 14–21. http://pubsapp.acs.org/subscribe/archive/ci/31/i02/html/02zall.html. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Matthews, M., ed. (1993). "Meeting Program Division of Chemical Education". Chemical Information Bulletin 45 (3): 64. https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc5647/m1/48/. 
  3. Rumpf, W.. "My ELN Life". Wolfgang Rumpf, Ph.D. Archived from the original on 15 May 2011. http://web.archive.org/web/20110515133816/http://web.me.com/evildrbob/Site/My_ELN_Life/My_ELN_Life.html. Retrieved 05 March 2013. 
  4. Matthews, M., ed. (1993). "Meeting Program Division of Chemical Education". Chemical Information Bulletin 45 (3): 46. https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc5647/m1/48/. 
  5. Borman, S. (1994). "Electronic Laboratory Notebooks May Revolutionize Research Record Keeping". Chemical Engineering News 72 (21): 10–20. doi:10.1021/cen-v072n021.p010. 
  6. Lysakowski, R. (1997). "The Collaborative Electronic Notebook Systems Consortium". Proceedings of the 19th Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society 6: 2659–2661. doi:10.1109/IEMBS.1997.756879. 
  7. Chandler, R.L. (1997). Documenting the Biotechnology Industry in the San Francisco Bay Area. University of California - San Diego Libraries. p. 40. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1m24k447#page-40. Retrieved 21 March 2020. 
  8. McLaughlin, D.R. (1999). "Chapter 11: The Wired Laboratory". Impact of Advances in Computing and Communications Technologies on Chemical Science and Technology: Report of a Workshop. National Academy Press. pp. 164. ISBN 0309065771. https://www.nap.edu/read/9591/chapter/15#164. 
  9. Skidmore, J.L.; Sottile, M.J.; Cuny, J.E.; Malony, A.D. (1998). "A Prototype Notebook-Based Environment for Computational Tools Computational Tools". Proceedings of the 1998 ACM/IEEE conference on Supercomputing: 22. doi:10.1109/SC.1998.10031. 
  10. Rees, P. (1 November 2004). "How to capture data to share". Scientific Computing World. Europa Science. https://www.scientific-computing.com/feature/how-capture-data-share. Retrieved 29 September 2017. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Elliot, M.H. (1 December 2006). "The state of the ELN Market". Scientific Computing World. Europa Science. https://www.scientific-computing.com/feature/state-eln-market. Retrieved 29 September 2017. 
  12. "Atrium Research Announces Fourth Edition of Landmark Report on Electronic Laboratory Notebooks". Atrium Research. 2 June 2009. http://www.atriumresearch.com/html/PR/pr060109.htm. Retrieved 04 May 2011. 
  13. "Atrium Research Announces the Third Edition of Landmark Report on Electronic Laboratory Notebooks". LIMSfinder.org. 7 May 2007. Archived from the original on 08 September 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20070908031324/http://www.limsfinder.com/BlogDetail.aspx?id=32062_0_3_0_C. Retrieved 21 March 2020. 
  14. Dance, A. (2010). "Digital Upgrade: How to choose your lab's next electronic lab notebook". The Scientist 24 (5): 71. https://www.the-scientist.com/uncategorized/digital-upgrade-43342. 
  15. "The Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 Part 11". U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 1 April 2010. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfCFR/CFRSearch.cfm?CFRPart=11&showFR=1. Retrieved 29 September 2017. 
  16. "Corrective and Preventive Actions (CAPA)". U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 28 June 2010. https://www.fda.gov/corrective-and-preventive-actions-capa. Retrieved 21 March 2020. 
  17. Macneil, R. (11 November 2010). "Are electronic lab notebooks for individuals or groups?". The electronic lab notebook blog. ResearchSpace/Axiope. Archived from the original on 29 September 2017. https://web.archive.org/web/20170929193010/http://www.researchspace.com/electronic-lab-notebook/blog/lab/?tag=record. Retrieved 21 March 2020. 
  18. Macneil, R. (6 October 2010). "What are electronic lab notebooks for?". ResearchSpace/Axiope. Archived from the original on 29 September 2017. https://web.archive.org/web/20170929193448/http://www.researchspace.com/elnblog/?paged=4. Retrieved 21 March 2020. 
  19. Dutton, G. (1 December 2006). "Lab Notebooks Offer Efficiency Gains". Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. https://www.genengnews.com/magazine/lab-notebooks-offer-efficiency-gains/. Retrieved 21 March 2020. 
  20. Bruce, S. (9 October 2008). "A Look at the State of Electronic Lab Notebook Technology". Scientific Computing. Advantage Business Media. https://www.scientificcomputing.com/article/2002/12/look-state-electronic-lab-notebook-technology. Retrieved 27 September 2017. 
  21. Kanza, S.; Willoughby, C.; Gibbins, N. et al. (2017). "Electronic lab notebooks: Can they replace paper?". Journal of Cheminformatics 9: 31. doi:10.1186/s13321-017-0221-3. PMC PMC5443717. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5443717.