We have all experienced the limitations of old -fashioned paper notebooks. Tedious to write. Difficult to read. Impossible to search. Inadequate to store digital data.
As research became increasingly digital, the paper notebook was complemented by a nebulae of data files on desktop computers, shared drives, cloud storage. Eventually, people got tired of the outdated paper notebook. Some attempted to replace the paper notebooks with various Word documents. Other may have stopped keeping a lab notebook altogether. The proliferation of electronic resources used in research has disrupted record keeping forever.
It is the ambition of electronic notebooks to bring some sanity back to the documentation of research processes by integrating disparate data into unified entries that are faster to write, easy to read, and convenient to search.
All the challenges associated with the selection of a LIMS apply to the selection of an ELN system. The reality is that ELNs are hard to properly evaluate before they’re actually used in the lab setting for several months; only after they’ve been implemented can their efficacy be fully confirmed. While the main functionalities of a LIMS are fairly well understood, the role of an ELN in a research organization remains a little more elusive. An ELN is more than an electronic version of a paper notebook. Vendors and users of ELNS software have wide ranges of expectations that are sometimes difficult to reconcile.
The full realization of the transition from physical paper to digital documentation means that there are more options to choose from than ever before. And selecting the wrong one can derail research instead of enabling it.
Consequently, it’s worth taking time to do your ELN research before you trust an ELN to record your research to. With that in mind, here are five of 2019’s leading ELN solutions to consider as you make your decision.
It’s worth noting that most of these systems include a LIMS module, as well as the Electronic Laboratory Notebook module we’ll be reviewing. Just like some LIMS added an ELN module on top of their sample management system, some LIMS have including basic sample tracking system in their ELN solutions. There is a continuum of solution from pure LIMS to pure ELN and it is sometimes difficult to figure out the category that a particular product fits into. Here, though, our intent is to review products that have a strong ELN module.
Here are the solutions we’ll cover:
Let’s dive in.
eLABJournal is, as they state prominently on their site, more than “just an electronic lab notebook.” It includes the eLabInventory LIMS system.
The flexibly-hosted software (via the cloud, private cloud, or on-premise) allows for data documentation, organization, searching, and archiving, with free add-ons that extend the functionality of the ELN “to a fully integrated Laboratory Information Management System.”
Integration is its strength; it offers the potential for linking data and files, incorporates procedures and SOPs, and can even integrate with Microsoft Web Apps (including Microsoft Excel).
The bottom line: eLABJournal is a dependable solution that offers a rich collection of features. With a host of easy integration options and an extensive array of add-ons, it’s an apt fit for many life science labs.
LabArchives is a product from a startup with deep roots in scientific publishing. LabArchives is an ELN solution that’s integrated with a network of third-party applications and services, including Biomed Central, the open access publisher.
The company offers different hosting plans for academic and corporate users. They also offer a teaching license that will be invaluable to teach good record keeping practices to students enrolled in lab classes.
LabFolder is a product developed by a German startup. Rather than relying on a typical notebook paradigm, LabFolder is designed using a hierarchy of folders and data containers somewhat reminiscent of the hierarchical file systems of desktop computers.
Working in LabFolder is like working on shared drive while still being compliant with standard FDA, ISO & GMP/GLP regulations. LabFolder offers plans for academic and corporate users. There is even a free plan, allowing users to experiment with the platform for an extended period of time before committing to it.
SciNote is an open-source ELN developed by a team in Slovenia. The company is headquartered in Wisconsin and is a joint venture between BioSistemika LLC and Gilson Inc. They offer academic and corporate plans allowing users to choose between a private cloud or on-premise deployment options.
SciNote has a project-centric approach to record keeping. It helps users describe their projects using a hierarchy – from project all the way to individual tasks. In some ways, SciNote can be regarded more as a workflow management system. It keeps track of the tasks completed by different people and generates reports on demand. It includes an intriguing add-on to assist in writing manuscripts by automating the process of pulling data from the system.
SciNote also enables audit trails and electronic signatures as a part of its 21 CFR Part 11 add-on within the Industry license.
RSpace, short for Research Space, is a product with deep roots in academia; it was developed in close collaboration with the University of Edinburgh.
RSpace Community is a free instance of the application that’s loaded with features and comes with very few limitations. The RSpace business model focuses on enterprise installations both in academia and corporate worlds. When deployed in an enterprise environment, users can benefit from a tight integration with other elements of the organization’s IT infrastructure.
RSpace has a document-centric approach to recordkeeping. It’s an information hub connected to numerous external services that enforces compliance with 21 CFR Part 11.
Benchling is startup based in San Francisco, and it shows: like many of the area’s startups, it’s sleek and stylish, with a focus on an intuitive user interface and cutting-edge tech. Funded in 2012, it has received more than $25M in funding so far. In a market where a lot of players seem to have received limited attention, Benchling is a rock star who has cultivated a very dedicated following, especially in academic circles; the fact that Benchling is free for Academics probably helps. However, Benchling is a pretty expensive solution for those outside of academia, where it starts at $20K/year.
Benchling a suite of software solutions, including a lab notebook, but the tight integrations between the different modules make it more than an ELN. A very distinctive feature of Benchling is the abundance of bioinformatics tools that are embedded in the system. For users doing molecular biology work on a regular basis, it is not surprising that the company claims users can achieve efficiencies of up to 85%.
The bottom line: Benchling is a startup darling for a reason. The software’s intuitive and robust, making data entry easier, and it offers easy hookup to a suite of tools that offer the capacity for even more.
Want expert guidance in selecting the ideal ELN for your laboratory?
Our hope is that these reviews have been helpful as you consider selecting an ELN for your laboratory’s circumstances and workflows. The reality is that we’ve only scratched the surface here – there are dozens of additional alternatives, with more entering the scene each year. It is interesting to observe that different ELN vendors experiment with different approaches to recordkeeping. While some products follow a document-centric approach, others are workflow-centric, and some, like Benchling, develop completely integrated platforms. Another complicating factor is that a number of interesting solutions have been developed by relatively small companies whose size can (fairly) raise concerns.
That can make selecting the right software even more difficult. If you’d like additional expertise, get in touch with us.
At GenoFAB, we empower research teams with technology solutions and computational services customized to streamline flows of scientific data.
Through our ELN services, we help laboratories evaluate their needs, compare ELN options, deploy the ELN they have selected, and support their team in their daily use of this critical system. GenoFAB clients can also choose to use the eLabJournal ELN (mentioned above) hosted on the GenoFAB private cloud to obtain cost savings on the offering.
Your lab deserves an ELN system that empowers your research – not one that hampers it. Get in touch with us today for expert guidance.