What is an ELN?

One tool that will help you to structure, document and describe your data is an Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN). An ELN is a digital software tool that can be used to replace both paper and digital notebooks. Electronic Lab Notebooks are sometimes referred to as Electronic Research Notebooks (ERN) – because you can do more advanced actions than “just” taking lab notes. An ELN can be beneficial for everyone collecting and/or analysing data, not just for those performing laboratory experiments. 

An ELN is especially useful throughout the active phase of research data management and will help you keep track of the entire research process and its results. Thus, an ELN may be a very useful tool when it comes to:

  • Documenting the methods and the procedures
  • Keeping track of the processing of your experiments
  • Keeping track of the results from the experiments
  • First step of the documentation of the datasets       

Why use ELNs?

In this video interview, you will meet Omri Snir, researcher in Clinical Medicine at UiT The Arctic University of Norway, who talks about the advantages of using ELNs.

Transcript of interview with Omri Snir

The typical features of ELNs offer many benefits to the user, including:

  • Advanced search functions in files, including protocols, observations, notes, templates and forms. 
  • Audit tracking and version control is required for the ELN to serve as a legal document.
  • Creation of groups enables easy collaboration and sharing of the above-mentioned files and insight into your colleagues’ work. Groups can also include collaborators outside your lab.
  • Cloud based ELNs allow for continuous backup of data. This not only prevents data loss, but also allows you to access your ELN when you are not in the office.
  • Fine-grained access control can make ELNs more secure than a paper notebook.
  • Direct incorporation of data from instruments, which replaces the practice of printing out data to be stapled into a paper notebook.  
  • Integration with other applications, which allows the ELN to support many steps in the researcher’s workflow. Some ELNs provide integrations with DMP tools and archiving services, and will thus cover the entire life cycle of RDM.

An ELN helps you store and organise unstructured data and tells the story of your research in a way that is decipherable by human beings who are trying to reconstruct what you did. An ELN helps you record the details of your lab process, including information on the context and also who did what out of the people involved. An ELN is thus a tool that can aid researchers in making their research reproducible, replicable, and transparent, in line with the goals of open science (although it is still rather rare for researchers to fully open their ELNs). In addition, an ELN will help you to make your data more FAIR (Plomp & Heijer, 2019).

Some ELNs integrate laboratory information management systems (LIMS). The traditional function of a LIMS is the management of samples, reagents, and other laboratory inventories, as well as keeping track of equipment and equipment maintenance schedules. In addition, a LIMS can take care of the data flow from continuously operated instruments or sensors, and can be used for quality control assessments. While a LIMS manages raw data, ELNs add the opportunity to tell a story about how the data were produced and their organisation, context and structure.

There is a wide array of ELN providers to choose from. Some are free, some charge for a license, while others provide a basic product for free and charge for additional features. Your lab or institution will need to consider a number of different factors when selecting an ELN. A useful resource might be the “Electronic Lab Notebook Comparison Matrix” or the article by Kwok (2018).

Here is a non-comprehensive list of available ELNs
Name URL Free of charge?
LabArchives https://www.labarchives.com/ No
Labfolder ELN https://www.labfolder.com/ Freemium*
LabLog™ Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) https://labnotebook.app/ No
Labstep https://www.labstep.com/ Yes
LabWare ELN https://www.labware.com/lims/electronic-lab-notebook
Mbook - Mestrelab https://mestrelab.com/software/mbook/ No
openBIS https://openbis.ch/ Yes
PerkinElmer https://www.perkinelmer.com/category/notebook No
Rspace https://www.researchspace.com/ Freemium*
Scilligence - Software Solutions for Life Science R&D
https://www.scilligence.com/web/scilligence-eln/ No
* Freemium: A basic product or service is provided free of charge, but money (a premium) is charged for additional features

Recommended reading if you want to learn more:

  • Potthoff, J. et al. (2019). Procedures for systematic capture and management of analytical data in academia. Analytica Chimica Acta: X, 1(2019), 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acax.2019.100007
  • Zulauf, B. & Knipprath, N. (2019). Electronic Lab Notebooks - early research practice in teaching. Poster presentation at the International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation (ICERI), Seville, Spain. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3540788

  • Harvard Longwood Medical Area Research Data Management Working Group. (2021). Electronic Lab Notebook Comparison Matrix. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4723753 
  • Kwok, R. (2018). How to pick an electronic laboratory notebook. Nature560, 269-270. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05895-3
  • Plomp, E. & Heijer, K. d.  (2019). Electronic Lab Notebooks: turning a new page in laboratory research. Introduction presentation for a workshop on Electronic Lab Notebooks for the "FAIR Data - the Key to Sustainable Research" seminar at Tartu University Library on 10 April 2019. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.2634448

Last modified: Thursday, 8 December 2022, 2:50 PM