Capabilities of the best electronic lab notebooks

Kyrstin Lou Ward

Whether you’re just starting to explore electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) or are already narrowing down platforms, knowing the core capabilities of the best electronic laboratory notebooks will help you in your selection process.

What is an electronic lab notebook?

At its most basic level, an electronic lab notebook (ELN) provides the same functions as a paper notebook—it’s a record of your work, but instead of writing out the day’s experiment(s), signing each page, and having a colleague witness your signature, you type everything into a computer interface and use electronic signature technology.

With life sciences rapidly evolving, and processes and instruments becoming more and more sophisticated, it’s no surprise that many research labs are in need of solutions that go beyond the capabilities of legacy desktop ELNs, which are infamous for being complex and difficult to use.

While ELNs have matured, not every ELN is created equal—they live on a spectrum of capabilities, each offering advantages and disadvantages.

Types of Electronic Lab Notebooks

Standard Electronic Laboratory Notebooks

Basic ELNs (e.g., SciNote) are point solutions that serve as electronic versions of paper, generally offering basic word processing and barebones inventory management features. While they are certainly a step up from paper-based notebooks, they vary significantly in terms of their collaboration and review functionality, as well as the extent to which they can be integrated with existing informatics tools and instruments.

Mid-tier Electronic Laboratory Notebooks

These solutions are a step up from the basic ELN in terms of their security features, entry organization and standardization capabilities, and integration with more sophisticated inventory management software. Mid-tier ELNs will allow you to plan and document experiments, track progress, share results, and have built-in inventory management that links to your research entries. With a mid-tier ELN (e.g., Labguru), you should be able to easily access, find, and update your entries from anywhere and any from device (assuming you have the permissions to do so), and it should have features that keep your data secure and audit-ready (e.g., e-signature capabilities).

While mid-tier ELNs can help you to more efficiently manage your samples and document your experiments, they are often limited in their ability to integrate with your entire instrument and software ecosystem, resulting in siloed data or clunky transitions as you progress through your experiment workflow.

Top-tier Electronic Laboratory Notebooks

The best electronic laboratory notebooks (e.g., Benchling Notebook) offer a comprehensive suite of capabilities and are user-friendly and easily accessible. These ELNs go beyond the typical ELN features by seamlessly integrating with your instrument and software ecosystem, creating a centralized data-warehouse. ELNs that are part of a unified platform solution create one cohesive workspace that can include bioregistration, workflow management, and molecular biology tools. Software that delivers this level of continuity across a life science R&D company bolsters productivity and helps deliver insights that are otherwise unreachable.

Top 5 Capabilities of the Best Electronic Laboratory Notebooks

1. The best electronic laboratory notebooks facilitate searching through studies

One of the first things people think about when they consider moving to an electronic lab notebook is the ability to easily find their data and experimental records. With an ELN, you get all the benefits of digital search tools to locate specific entries or keywords. The best platforms offer advanced search tools that can constrain your search and filter results by parameters such as a cell line, plasmid, or reagent used in the experiment.

2. The best electronic laboratory notebooks improve how you derive insights from your data

An electronic lab notebook graduates you from a linear, static way of organizing your experiments in a paper notebook to a more comprehensive and flexible system for recordkeeping and data visualization.

The best ELN software offers complete organizational fluidity, drawing out pieces of data from software that would otherwise be disjointed and keep key insights hidden. By pairing this level of connectivity with customizable dashboards and flexible data visualization options, top-tier ELNs bring mission-critical information to the surface for every team—from the lab to the board room.

For instance, with Benchling, you can create Notebook entries with structured results and access them with the Benchling Insights application, where you can analyze, visualize, and compare results from multiple experiments or even monitor production workflows for a specific entity.

3. The best electronic laboratory notebooks increase efficiency

The best ELN platforms go beyond simply replicating the paper lab notebook experience and capitalize on the advantages of the digital environment—making it easier and faster to find, record, and set up experiments.

With Benchling, you can create an entry in Notebook, automate data entry from your instruments (such as liquid handlers), and then link that entry and data to specific samples, plasmids, cell lines, and reagents. This continuity cuts down time spent on manual data entry tasks and puts all the information you need for analysis or your next assay right at your fingertips.

The average Benchling user saves 9 hours per week through efficiency improvements from Benchling features.

4. The best electronic laboratory notebooks simplify standardization and compliance

A top-tier electronic lab notebook not only helps you streamline data recording and maintain regulatory compliance, it can simplify these two activities by offering customizable templates for data entry and features that enforce standardized record keeping.

Additionally, the best ELNs enable you to create standardized naming conventions and assign read access and edit access to specific team members. These features help multiple users collaborate efficiently and establish a risk-mitigating user-permissions hierarchy—protecting your critical templates and entries from accidental edits and deletions so your data is always secure and auditable.

Look for an ELN where tables can be configured with predefined fields for templated data entry. This will help you capture all critical data in a standardized format for a variety of study types.

5. The best electronic laboratory notebooks help connect your entire R&D organization

For many ELNs, integration requires custom coding, especially if you’re connecting to a lab information management system (LIMS). And, depending on the respective platforms, that connection can be clunky and will require updates as software and hardware platforms evolve.

The best ELNs give you a seamless digital experience out of the box, with integrated  applications that would normally be distinct systems, such as inventory management, process management, and registration. This fully unified platform approach allows you to quickly find samples, reagents, and workflows associated with every experiment and result connecting your entire workflow.

Key Features to Consider When Choosing an ELN

As you consider which ELN is best for your team, consider the features below. This list of features will help drive productivity, foster collaboration, ensure compliance, and analyze data and processes.


Benchling has the capabilities of the best ELNs and more

Benchling is a modern research platform that unifies the entire R&D lifecycle. By standardizing and centralizing R&D workflows on a single cloud-based platform, Benchling helps forward-thinking companies accelerate their digital lab transformation to enable smarter, faster decision-making.

The Benchling Life Sciences R&D Cloud replaces legacy ELN and LIMS offerings with seven integrated applications:

The applications provide a unified platform and seamless user experience that enables codeless configuration, lab automation, API usage, and more. Benchling currently powers high-impact life science R&D across thousands of commercial, government, and academic organizations around the globe.

Leverage the capabilities of the best ELNs with Benchling

  • Strong support for large molecule R&D

  • Very user-friendly and easily configurable

  • Seamless integration with data-generating instruments and existing software

  • Unified with molecular biology design tools (ex. CRISPR guide and primer design)

  • Templates for sequence mapping and sharing

  • ELN is part of an integrated, cloud-based platform

  • Purpose-built for modern life science R&D

Fully digital recordkeeping—including automated data capture from instruments—is the future of the modern life science R&D lab, and electronic lab notebooks are a powerful and essential part of that future.

Prep your team for getting the optimal digital solution for your lab by reading Benchling’s ELN eBook.

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