Using Microsoft OneNote as an ELN

Electronic research data documentation can be achieved with either comprehensive software applications or “do-it-yourself” solutions. Whereas the first is often quite cost intensive, the latter one is usually labor intensive to set it up properly. An interesting intermediary solution is provided by Microsoft OneNote:
Guerrero and colleagues compared different electronic lab notebook (ELN) applications and found that Microsoft OneNote is very competitive in its capabilities compared to dedicated solutions (LINK). A survey also revealed that its users preferred OneNote compared to other solutions. Last year, the same group described the adaptation of OneNote to the lab environment (LINK) and touched on the following aspects:

  • Structure and labeling: Here, the research unit needs to agree on the organization of generated research data and on having a convention for naming and classifying different experiments
  • Data acquisition: OneNote allows saving of raw data within the program and hyperlinking of larger files
  • Data presentation: Tools are described for data presentation and connecting with other Microsoft applications, e.g. integration of Microsoft Excel
  • Sharing: OneNote provides comprehensive sharing features which makes collaborations easy
  • Storing, securing and legalizing: With specific settings and usage of Microsoft SharePoint it is even possible to be FDA Code Title 21 Part11 compliant and files can be backed up in a OneNote file format – only the implementation of legally binding time stamps does not seem to be currently possible.

Overall, this article provides many practical tips on establishing OneNote as an alternative to a conventional lab notebook.
An interesting resource for additional reading material is the blog by Dr Martin Engel. In his posts he describes the transition from paper-based lab notebooks to OneNote (LINK) or the use of OneNote (LINK) in more detail.

Updated review of electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) published by LabsExplorer

LabsExplorer has recently published an updated review on electronic lab notebooks. The first review was published in 2017 (LINK) giving a comprehensive list including short summaries for a variety of applications.
In this updated review, the authors provide a ranking list which was established by using a score system based on five different criteria: user-friendliness, completeness, connectivity, price, and special points. The list contains 28 different ELNs and can potentially be used as the first guide when choosing an ELN (LINK).

“How to pick an electronic laboratory notebook?

Commentary about the Nature-Toolbox article by Roberta Kwok (August 6th, 2018)

Laboratory Notebooks (LN) play a key role in research since they are the primary documentation platform for research experiments and should contain all information about the experimental execution. For decades, the paper-based format has not changed and, only in recent years, various electronic solutions are emerging (eLN). This shift from paper-based LN to eLN seems to be obvious and necessary since paper lab notebooks cannot provide several comforts that eLNs can provide, such as easy data sharing, searching functionalities, linking to electronic data and more. However, of course there are also several disadvantages, such as dependency on software producer and equipment, and finding the fit-for-purpose product for your research unit within all the different solutions provided on the market. For the last point, Roberta Kwok provides excellent guidance with several key aspects to consider when choosing an electronic solution. These aspects include items such as
A) deep  research of different ELNs on the market,
B) cost calculations,
C) understanding the legal issues,
D) evaluating the long term availability of all data linked to the ELN,
E) accessibility via mobile devices,
F) integration of the software into other platforms,
E) possibility to test software,
F) commitment to change to an ELN within a research unit.

We want to stretch the point of ‘data availability’ which can become an issue if an ELN is no longer in use and data sets are not (properly) accessible any longer. It is therefore important to know what will happen with all uploaded/stored data if the ELN company/provider goes bankrupt, is sold to another company or the research organisation decides to change to another ELN because a new product provides a better or cheaper solution.
Most often, accessibility will be guaranteed by the ELN provider and an export functionality will be available. However, the export of data can also come in different formats: usually, an export will be possible to XML or pdf. This will ensure that data can be read but all other functionalities will be limited. Thus, it would be favourable if the data could be exported in a format that is readable by other applications and that allows full integration into other lab software programs. Given that most software companies develop their own data and file formats, this is hardly ever the case. Therefore, more standardised data format protocols will be needed to overcome this barrier.

A pocket guide to electronic laboratory notebooks in the academic life sciences.

Scientists use lab notebooks (LNs) to document their hypotheses, experiments and initial analysis or interpretation of experiments. However, while complexity of science has changed dramatically over the last century, LNs have remained essentially unchanged since pre-modern science. In this article, U. Dirnagl and I. Przesdzing describe their experience when recently switching from a paper-based laboratory notebook to an electronic LN (eLN). They provide researchers and their institutions with the background and practical knowledge to select and initiate the implementation of an eLN in their laboratories. (F1000Res. 2016 Jan 4;5:2.)