Discipline-specific Tools: Science: Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs)

ScienceScientists have been recording data for millennia (Bird, 2013).  Since science became more formal in the 17th century, more and more data has been produced, and tools grow ever more sophisticated.  There are still some who think that if a paper notebook that records the progress of an experiment was good enough for Sir Isaac Newton, it must be good enough for me!

There are still advantages to paper.  It is cheap, extremely portable, and if a spill destroys it, it isn’t hard to replace.  If it is lost or destroyed, however, then that experiment is (sometimes literally) up in smoke.  So as computers progressed, the idea of keeping experimental data online was born, and took hold first in the 1990s.  Now there are many products, at all levels of sophistication.  They range from free to highly expensive, and are designed for corporate or academic labs or individuals.  There are versions for all operating systems, browsers, and, in this second decade of the 21st century, there are also versions for tablets.  ELNs may be specific to one discipline, such as chemistry or biology, or more general.  The more sophisticated ones may be required to meet regulatory requirements for the FDA, or to be able to meet requirements to protect intellectual property.

Notebook Software

As will be no surprise to readers of this blog, we take particular note of note-taking software.  A number of academic researchers use Evernote or OneNote as their ELN.  Their availability on a wide variety of platforms, features that include robust search capabilities, ability to add many formats including audio and graphics, and more, make them the choice of many.  As a devotee of Evernote, I somewhat reluctantly admit that for this purpose I suspect OneNote, with its infinite levels of hierarchy, might be best.  Resources discussing each are below.  Since note-taking software is tablet-friendly, some researchers pop their iPad in a plastic bag to prevent damage from spills, and type away.  Others use Evernote with the Livescribe digital pen or the Penultimate handwriting app.  Similarly, some use Google Docs or a wiki to keep track of their information and to share between a small group of collaborators.

Other Software

However, while this software may work for some, especially academic labs where resources are short, such software lacks many desirable features of ELNs.  There was a short-lived organization, the Collaborative Electronic Notebook Systems Association (CENSA).  It developed a definition of an ELN:

CENSA define[d] an ELN as, “a system to create, store, retrieve and share fully electronic records in ways that meet all legal, regulatory, technical and scientific requirements.” (Rubacha, 2011)


Notebook and docs software don’t meet this definition.  Corporations were early ELN adopters and had to meet strict requirements for their data, some of it imposed by the Food and Drug Administration (pharmaceutical companies were one of the leaders in this field).  Other restrictions came from the process for patenting the results of the experiments.  Many the competitors in the field starting adding features to meet these requirements as well as other desirable features such as the ability to directly upload readings from scientific instruments.


Currently the ELN market is thriving, with a product available to meet almost any need.  Academics have not caught up to corporations yet in this area.  Specific labs may have an ELN, and it is increasingly necessary to keep track of the work done by everyone in the lab. This is especially true of work of labs with high personnel turnover, such as academic labs where much of the research is done by graduate students or postdocs who will be moving on to jobs elsewhere.  Labs have to have a mechanism to retain their information.  Standardization across a campus might become the norm if institutional licenses become more common.


As a disclaimer, I must mention that I have never done science in a laboratory, so am not qualified to make recommendations about the best ELNs to use.  My purpose in this, as with the other posts in the discipline-specific tools series, is to suggest resources for finding information from the experts in a field.  Below you will find a list of resources that may be of help.  Unfortunately I did not find one source that lists all the software AND reviews it.  If you know of such a resource please mention it in the comments!


The Best of the Best:

Bird, C. L., Willoughby, D, and Frey, J. G. (2013).  Laboratory Notebooks in the Digital Era: the Role of ELNs in Record Keeping for Chemistry and Other Sciences.  Chemical Society Reviews, 42, 8157-8175.  DOI: 10.1039/C3CS60122F.  Open access article with excellent explanation of ELNs and an equally good and extensive literature review.

LiMSwiki.org.  Electronic Laboratory Notebook.  Last updated August 2014.  LiMS stands for Laboratory Information Management Systems, of which ELNs are a part.  Article gives good background on ELNs (better than the Wikipedia article).

LiMSwiki.org.  ELN Vendor Page.  Page lists active vendors first (about 60 of them), then inactive vendors.  The name of the vendor, their main product(s), home country, and notes (mostly mergers and acquisitions) are provided.  Last updated October 2014.

Rubacha, M., Rattan, A. K., and Hosselet, S.C. (2011).  A Review of Electronic Laboratory Notebooks Available in the Market TodayJournal of Laboratory Automation, v. 16 (1), 90-98. Reviews over 20 ELNs according to CENSA definition.  Organization is by categories:  R&D,  Biology/Chemistry,  Quality control/Assessment or Multidisciplinary.  Reviews include awards if any,  most important features,  link to company website.   No pricing information.  The Journal of Laboratory Automation has had numerous articles with ELNs as the main or subsidiary topic, and its articles become open access after two years.

Notebook Software Sources:

Bedford, E. (2013).  Electronic Lab NotebooksGradhacker, August 22, 2013.  Primarily discusses Evernote, with links to LabGuru, iLabber (now Accelrys Notebook Cloud), and the PerkinElmer E-Notebook product.  Also discusses the Livescribe pen and the advantages of tablet computers.

Crockett, C. (2013).  Evernote for Scientists: Mastering the Electronic Lab NotebookAstrobetter, June 24, 2013.  Reports on a discussion on the Astronomers Facebook page about using Evernote as an ELN, and the features they most liked for the purpose.

Hayes, Melissa.  Electronic Lab Notebooks.  The Postdoc Experience, Nov., 19th, 2012.  Discusses using OneNote, with print backups.

Polka, J. (2014).  Exotic Electronic Lab Notebooks.  ACSB Post.  The author uses OneNote, but passes on recommendations from others about a variety of products, some specifically ELN and some not.  Products mentioned are Circus Ponies (Mac product similar to OneNote), Curio (Mac, notebook software, includes mind mapping), Hivebench (Mac or browser, ELN, specialized for biologists), LabArchives (browser, iOS and Android apps, lots of ELN features), VoodooPad (Mac OS, wiki with many features including publishing to ePub or PDF, Markdown language, Javascript, and more), and LyX (graphical editor for TeX/LaTex).

Research Guides:

ELNs Electronic Laboratory Notebooks – guide from Daureen Nesbill, University of Utah.  Home page with definition, pages on selecting an ELN, Lists of ELNs, and implementation at other institutions.  Last updated August 2013.

Electronic Lab Notebooks at Yale – this guide is an example of a campus that has chosen one product for the campus as a whole (LibArchives, in this case).  The guide defines an ELN and discusses some features of LibArchives.

Selected Articles on Other ELNs:

Giles, J. (2012).  Going Paperless: The Digital Lab.  Nature, v. 481 (7382), News feature.  General discussion of ELNs, with some specific mention of LabGuru, iLabber, and Syapse.

King, A. (2013).  Notebooks Go DigitalChemistryWorld, May 22, 2013.  Discusses ELNs in particular and their expansion from just data capture but also data analysis and visualization.  Companies with ELNs mentioned are Accelrys/Contur, IDBS, CambridgeSoft, and other players.

MacNeil, R. The Electronic Lab Notebook Blog.  No longer active, but had a variety of articles on the topic.  MacNeil is CEO of company that produces the ELN eCAT.

SelectScienceElectronic Laboratory Notebooks.  SelectScience bills itself as “trusted information for laboratory scientists”.  The ELN page has information on eleven products with a link to request pricing, and a link to the ELN producers website.


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