Life Science Needs an ELN Upgrade

Kyrstin Lou Ward

It’s an exciting time for the life sciences. New technologies are accelerating discoveries at a breakneck rate, from CRISPR to CAR-T, from sustainable foods to sustainable fabrics. Yet many scientists and lab managers are using software that slows them down rather than accelerating their research. Whether they are using a paper notebook, an electronic lab notebook, or a legacy LIMS, these tools relegate scientists to scattered and disparate record keeping. Outdated data management tools lead scientists to spend 20-40% of their time on busywork, taking them away from their essential work in the lab (Elliott, 2004).

When it comes to note taking, many scientists store their data on wayward papers and notebooks, and often have to paste single, paper copies of results, like gel readouts, into their notes. With a process like this, scientists need to first capture their data by hand, then duplicate that data into a spreadsheet for further analysis, re-enter the data into an electronic file or email to share it, and sometimes even re-enter it into their lab’s lab management software.

All of this manual data entry is time consuming and takes scientists and managers away from the science itself. What’s more, each step of manual data entry also introduces another opportunity for manual error. And after all of that effort for data entry, paper notebooks run the risk of being damaged, lost, or even simply accidentally left behind during a critical procedure.

If researchers or labs have moved away from paper records, they may use a legacy electronic lab notebook, or ELN. Though a legacy ELN may seem to make it easier to copy and paste directly into other formats, they still require just that- more data entry into external, disconnected systems. Some electronic notebooks aren’t compatible with data repositories, nor can they migrate data in from other external systems. Many current ELNs make it difficult to capture metadata relevant to a given sample or experiment, meaning that data loses its context as it gets transformed or transferred to different teams or decision makers.

When legacy electronic lab notebooks were developed back in the 90s and early 2000s, they intended to make laboratories more efficient. However, in reality, ELNs still cause many of the same restrictions and inefficiencies as paper notebooks. One 2017 review stated that 22% of ELN users found them too difficult to use and 80% found it difficult to capture relevant information (Kanza, et al. 2017). The review also stated that 55.6% of users desired more efficient note taking, 80.2% desired better note organization, 90.6% desired functional searchability, and 73.6% desired the ability to link their data to external sources (Kanza, et al. 2017). Even scientists who have adopted ELNs recognize their limitations.

ELN software is rarely cross functional and either struggle to integrate or simply lack molecular modeling or lab management software. So, ELNs are often used alongside multiple other siloed, point-solution software, like legacy LIMS systems, genome editing tools, CRISPR tools, and other molecular modeling software. Yet these software systems remain disparate, difficult to integrate, and are too rigid to handle the iterative, evolving nature of breakthrough life science R&D.

Migrating to a software solution should address the inefficiencies of manual record keeping. Software should be more than just an electronic version of paper and should be flexible in the face of iteration rather than breaking when innovations arise. Scientists and the entire life science industry deserve modern software that fosters insights, supports collaboration, and drives predictive and adaptive planning.

Life science is progressing every day, bringing us closer to novel gene-editing and cellular therapies, sustainable fuels and sustainable foods. To bring these technologies to light, the industry needs comprehensive software that provides the features that ELNs and LIMS promise but fail to deliver. The future of biological technologies is bright, and it is time for life science to step out of the shadow of outdated software, leave behind the scattered papers, electronic lab notebooks, and LIMS, and embrace notebooks on cloud-based cross-functional platforms.


Elliott, M. H. (2004). It's Not About the Paper. Scientific Computing and Instrumentation. Retrieved May 7, 2019, from 2004.pdf

Kanza, S., Willoughby, C., Gibbons, N., Whitby, R., Graham Frey, J., Erjavec, J., . . . Kovač, K. (2017). Electronic lab notebooks: Can they replace paper? Journal of Cheminformatics,9(31). Retrieved May 5, 2019, from

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