Taking your lab digital: What to know about bringing electronic lab notebook technology into your R&D lab
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What is an electronic lab notebook?
Before we talk about integrating an electronic lab notebook into your life science R&D lab and ELN best practices, it’s important to fully define the capabilities you can get out of an ideal ELN platform; the differences between a paper lab notebook and an electronic lab notebook can provide some benefits you might not expect.
Like a paper notebook, it’s a record of your work
The traditional paper-based lab notebook has been around as long as science has, helping scientists keep track of experiments and observations that are later collected, analyzed, and published. In modern times, the lab notebook also plays a critical legal role in documenting when discoveries happen and who should be credited with the discovery for intellectual property purposes.
At its most basic level, the electronic lab notebook can also provide these same functions. Instead of recording the day’s experiment(s) in a lab notebook, signing each page, and having a colleague witness your signature, you type everything into a computer interface and use electronic signature technology.
But when you transition from recording experiments on paper to a digital format, you can gain so much more.
It’s a tool that facilitates 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 things like experimental records and data. You get all the benefits of digital search tools to locate specific entries or keywords, and with the best platforms, you also get advanced search tools that can constrain your search and filter results by parameters such as a cell line, plasmid, or other reagent used in the experiment.
It’s a tool that can completely change how your team derives insight from data
One of the most significant benefits of an electronic lab notebook over a paper lab notebook stems from the way it shifts the basic organizational unit for recording studies from the notebook to the individual experiment. The implications of this shift become really exciting when you think about team-based R&D.
With paper-based record keeping, one of the challenges is that the notebook is the basic organizational unit, since you can’t remove or add pages (unless you are using a binder, which is not very defensible from an intellectual property point of view). It constrains each scientist to a linear, day-by-day structure which can be difficult to search through and complicated to manage if that scientist is multitasking and running small parts of different studies in a single day.
In contrast, with an electronic lab notebook you are no longer confined to a single, linear, inflexible way of organizing your experiments. You can keep information from multi-day and multi-person studies organized together, making it easier to tie experimental protocols to results and to pull together data for analysis.
The best ELN software platforms take this organizational fluidity even further. For example, with Benchling, you can create an entry in Notebook, the application for recording experiments, and link that entry to specific samples, plasmids, cell lines, and other reagents that are tracked in the Registry application. This capability simplifies the process of assembling critical information for analysis by ensuring that all the information you need—the protocols, the data, and the plasmids, strains, and other reagents—is readily available and up-to-date.
Note that while Benchling has ELN capabilities with the Notebook application, it’s actually a unified lab productivity platform that moves beyond the typical definition of an electronic lab notebook.
For example, with Benchling’s Insights application, which works seamlessly with Notebook, Registry, and all of Benchling’s other applications, you can gain scientific, operational, and administrative insights that paper-based systems can’t deliver. Through easily configurable dashboards and reports, scientists can quickly share, group, and analyze data to make connections that could otherwise have been missed. Lab managers can stay on top of lab operations, ensuring that scientists have everything they need to stay productive. And administrators and executives can get information to optimize program management, resource use, and more.
It’s a tool that can increase efficiency and make the task of recording experiments easier
One worry that people often have when thinking about switching to an electronic lab notebook is that entering information may be harder and take more time. Instead of quickly jotting down tables, drawing chemical compounds, and pasting or taping in gels, plasmid maps, and other information, you have to learn the ELN’s interface, which may be challenging. There are definitely electronic lab notebooks that have clunky user interfaces and that don’t integrate well with other programs, making it difficult to import images, tables, and data.
The best ELN platforms go beyond simply replicating the paper lab notebook experience and capitalize on the advantages of the digital environment. For example, with Benchling Notebook, you can actually make the chore of recording the day’s experiments easier and faster through the use of templates that can include checkboxes and pull-down menus. Benchling Molecular Biology makes it easy to create entities like plasmid maps and link them to all relevant Notebook entries. And you can integrate data collection instruments such as liquid handlers into the Benchling platform, saving time and reducing errors from manual data entry.
In all, the average Benchling user saves 9-hours per week through efficiency improvements from these and other Benchling features.
It’s a tool that can simplify standardization and compliance
A good electronic lab notebook not only supports insight generation and regulatory compliance, it can make these two activities faster and easier.
The same template capabilities that make it easy to use Benchling for recording experiments can also make comparison and analysis easier by enforcing standardized record keeping. This includes tables within Benchling Notebook entries, as tables can be configured with predefined fields for templated data entry.
Benchling also provides customizable witnessing and review processes, with electronic signatures, audit trails, and automatic versioning so you never lose critical information.