Splice has been actively following the changes and improvements of the Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs) landscape to provide you with the latest information. This June (2020), we updated our list of the Top 9 Best ELNs you can currently choose from. Our review focuses on ELNs that offer the best price-performance ratio.
ELNs from PerkinElmer, Agilent Technologies, BIOVIA (formerly known as Accelrys) and IDBS are missing from the list as their features are more appropriate for regulated environments. At the moment, there are over 100 ELNs available to researchers. In this updated article, we have expanded our previous list of the top 7 ELN list to the top 9 ELNs that fit our criteria and can support academia and the industry. The reviews follow below.
Paper-based Lab Notebooks
It is no secret that the paper-based laboratory notebook is the most widely used form of experimental data tracking in labs worldwide. It has been around for several centuries (even da Vinci had one), and you will find it in the cabinet of every scientist. But does that necessarily imply that it is also the most efficient way of recording scientific data?
Experimental records that aren’t being digitized account for 17% loss of all research data and lab books are becoming the bottlenecks in information management. This poses big repeatability threats, enormous costs and considerable limitations for knowledge sharing within an organization and the community.
To be fair, paper lab books have done a fairly decent job up to this point. Many features make it great; e.g. they’re inexpensive and don’t require batteries to run. On the other hand, there are only a few things we have not modernized for over a century, let alone a millennium. Technological advances simply make things better, and you won’t find anyone doing their taxes on an abacus.
A Glimpse of the Future
Automation and digitization enabled researchers to achieve a level of output like never before imaginable. With hundreds of emerging knowledge-sharing platforms, data can now be globally distributed before you can say “DNA”. The integration-based approach has allowed science to flourish and interoperability is swiftly becoming the new buzzword in modern research. Imagine all your instruments sending analytical data directly into a single software platform. No more running around with USB sticks, copy-pasting, printing, cutting and glueing. Please, do tell more.
Introducing the Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN)
ELN stands for Electronic Laboratory Notebook, but it spans far beyond just a replacement for paper. It brings forth systematical, safe, and efficient data storage along with interoperable data distribution.
The majority of the recently-developed ELNs are set up as cloud-based software (like Dropbox). This means that researchers can seamlessly collaborate in real-time, eliminate tedious manual data exchange, and overcome hurdles in communication.
Since 2000, when worldwide governments issued laws granting all electronic records the same validity as paper records, the number of available ELNs increased exponentially. Today, 75% of labs are showing interest in the technology. The fact that these numbers keep rising with every update to this article (annually) is an excellent sign for ELNs and science in general. Still, naysayers who claim that using paper is easier than its electronic counterpart remain. But is that really the case? Universities conduct whole courses on paper lab book documentation – just look at this lab notebook maintenance manual from Columbia University and decide for yourself what is really easier. If we learned one thing during the COVID-19 crisis, it is that organizations can very rapidly switch to digital if forced to do so.
You might also be interested in: Return on Investment When Implementing an Electronic Lab Notebook
Whatever your stance on electronic lab notebooks may be, it is clear that a digital revolution is at our doorstep. With over 60 ELNs out there, it is tough to decide where to even start. That is why we rounded up the 9 very best ELNs that will make your transition easier for when you choose to take that red pill.
Our criteria – ELN features under the magnifying glass
INTEROPERABILITY AND FLEXIBILITY
BUSINESS MODEL AND PRICING
The verdict – Our choice of the 9 best ELNs
- Intuitive and easy to use
- Inventory management and MS Office integration
- Automatically generates reports & manuscript drafts
- Exports all data in a readable format and API
- Free account option
- No integration with CRISPR/CAS9 genome editing software
- Possible archive management, built-in metrics and analytics
- Can connect to the eCAT sample tracking system
- Supports chemical structures
- Free to use with unlimited storage
- Many integrations
- Not open source
- GUI could use improvements
- Very user-friendly and quick to set up
- Useful DNA tools (CRISPR guide and primer design)
- Templates for sequence mapping and sharing
- Free account with 10 GB of storage space
- The free plan is tied to a single user and has limited functionalities
- Limited (support) video content
- Cannot create reports
- Expensive and niche-oriented
- Useful add-ons and integrations
- Flexible structure for protocol generation
- Collaboration option
- Good inventory management
- No video support content and unclear access to support page
- No real-time communication
- No free option
- Advanced tagging system for easy search
- Track recording from batch number to concentration
- Not very intuitive
- Project view too complex
- No free plan available
- Expensive subscription
- No video support content
- Free account for smaller teams and free mobile app
- Integration with Mendeley
- Not very intuitive
- Unflattering structured design
- The free version is limited to 3 team members
- Pubmed references entry editor
- Integration with GraphPad Prism
- The graphical user interface needs improvements, not intuitive
- Quite complicated, additional training necessary
- Not a lot of storage space in the free version (25 MB)
- Not open source
- Limited support, direct contact
- Supports all operating systems and browsers
- Suitable for high-level chemistry labs
- No free account, only free trial
- Niche interface, not very intuitive
- Not open source
- Only suitable for chemistry labs
- Mendeley Data Repository integration
- Poor GUI
- No support content
- Cannot import inventory or protocols
- No preview of attached files
- Not compatibile with Android
Each lab has its own set of expectations, intents, and capabilities, which will most likely never be fully met by a single, universal ELN.
Labs of the future will indisputably rely on interoperability of their instruments and devices. I believe that ELNs we have listed here will be capable of withstanding the test of time as they are already compatible with smartphones, tablets, and many other digital gadgets and platforms. The instruments will follow next.
Looking to implement an ELN? We can help. Download our free ELN Vendors Validation Chart
It’s an exciting time to be a researcher. We are witnessing a digital revolution in science, and we’ll get to explore the benefits it brings. The COVID-19 restrictions will likely accelerate that transition and have indeed already done so. The electronic laboratory notebook is at the helm of the revolution when it comes to labs and a much-needed breath of fresh air in experimental data management. There are now several great ELNs to choose from, each providing its unique set of tools to make your work easier and more effective. I hope this review will help you choose yours and make a step towards a digital tomorrow.
Decided to give ELNs a try? Here’s a step-by-step guide to selecting the best one for you: A Complete Guide to Selecting an Electronic Lab Notebook for Your Lab
What are the key elements to consider when picking an Electronic Laboratory Notebook (ELN)?
Users typically indicate user experience (UX), interoperability, flexibility, and pricing as the most important considerations when it comes to picking an Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN).
What are the characteristics of a good Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) user experience (UX)?
An ideal ELN should be intuitive to use, have an attractive, easy-to-use graphical user interface (GUI), and a dedicated support system (online support agents, manuals and video tutorials).
How can an Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) be interoperable and accessible?
Interoperable ELN’s typically enable multi-device compatibility (desktop, tablet, mobile), cloud access, collaboration in real-time and integrations with lab instruments via open APIs. An ELN should ideally work on all major operating systems and browsers.
What is important to consider when it comes to pricing of Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs)?
ELN’s come with various pricing models, it is important to find the one that best fits your needs and capabilities. Look out for vendors offering free versions, they can be a great option for labs on a budget or to simply try the product out before committing to a purchase.
Which Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) will work best for me?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution with ELNs, it comes down to the specific needs of your lab. Based on the criteria described in this review SciNote ELN scored the highest overall, however, we encourage you to review all contenders and find the best fit for you!
By Luka Zupancic MSc, University of Applied Sciences Technikum Vienna
*Splice is a scientific news blog funded by BioSistemika LLC, a software development company that also co-founded sciNote LLC (free open-source ELN). All of the ELNs included in this review were scored by an independent author and researcher, based on the major criteria identified in the largest study on user perception of electronic lab notebooks ever published, to provide the most relevant and objective insights for our readers. The author states that the views and opinions are entirely his own.