Why Should You Switch to ELNs?
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Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELNs) are often advertised as the next step in digital research technology, but uptake has remained stubbornly low despite a wide range of solutions being available on the market. Valid concerns have been raised about how to convince researchers that ELNs can match the ease and flexibility of paper-based notation, and responses from providers are often too product-centric and skirt around the issues, which will require a collaborative effort from the whole industry to overcome.
One company that seems clear about the need for providers to unite to promote ELNs as a lab-changing innovation is Germany-based labfolder. Here, we ask labfolder's Co-Founder and CEO Simon Bungers what providers can do to improve uptake, and how ELNs can answer the question of how to improve data integrity in modern research.
Ruairi Mackenzie (RM): How do you think providers can encourage ELN uptake, which remains relatively low?
Simon Bungers (SB): To make the switch from paper notebooks to an ELN is not an easy one, since scientists have been using paper to document their research for centuries. However, there is increased awareness and consensus that the paper notebook can no longer cope with the many data points and formats that are generated in a modern laboratory. The pre-digital lab usually stores a multitude of data files scattered across various computers, hard disks, file servers, paper folders and protocol collections. This is not sustainable, and each year more and more labs recognize this.
Still, ELN uptake could indeed go faster, and ELN providers can play a role in this. Besides simply creating an awesome product, I would highlight three things ELN companies can do to encourage uptake:
1. First, labfolder and its peers should always promote the use of the electronic lab notebook as a principle, and not just their own specific solution. I strongly believe that most electronic lab notebooks are superior to the paper version, and this is the message that we always transmit to the scientists that contact us. We should recognize that every lab has its own unique needs, and that there is no one-size-fits-all available today. As a scientific community, we fail collectively when scientists choose to stick with paper.
2. Second, you must support researchers in their journey from paper to digital, as there are a lot of ELN software providers and not enough concrete information. At labfolder, we solve this by publishing extensive documentation online which helps researchers find the most suitable ELN for their lab, such as The Comprehensive Guide to the Electronic Lab Notebook.
3. Finally but most importantly, any ELN provider needs to provide an outstanding onboarding experience and continued support for researchers. I really cannot praise our product specialists enough - they are as much the reason for our success as the quality of our electronic lab notebook.
RM: A review published in the Royal Society of Chemistry bemoans the fact that we will likely never see an electronic Faraday’s notebook. For some scientists, rough sketches at a lab bench are the basis of how they think about their work. What innovations do you propose to convert such a scientist to ELN use?
SB: The authors argued back in 2013 that the shift away from paper notebooks has brought about a reduction in the careful journaling of thoughts and ideas. They attribute this to two crucial factors:
1. The usability of electronic recording methods is lower than that of paper recording methods.
2. The reluctance of some scientists to share incomplete data or failed experiments.
These points were probably valid in 2013, but not today.
1. Before I co-founded labfolder (funnily enough this was exactly in 2013!), I also had a look at the market and concluded that there were no easy-to-use ELNs on the market that I would like to implement in my lab. That’s why labfolder and many other ELN startups have launched in the last five years and have brought a complete shift in the electronic lab notebook market. Today, modern electronic lab notebooks such as labfolder are built with user-driven design principles in mind. Our ELN leaves you with the flexibility and portability you know from the paper notebook, we want to keep it simple.
2. I don’t buy the argument that increased visibility and sharing of knowledge leads to less detail. One of our users told me once: “Through the use of labfolder, through the advantages it brings in a collaborative environment in terms of knowledge sharing and data retrievability, I spend more time on documenting, because I realize the benefit it brings to the team.” I couldn’t agree more! It will always remain important to teach researchers to set aside time for documentation, to organize data in a meticulous manner, and to think about why an experiment has failed. Some scientists might have a different approach to this, but in the end those preferences are independent of whether they use a paper or an electronic lab notebook.
RM: There’s a big movement in several fields towards producing reproducible research with a focus on integrity. How can ELNs help researchers meet that goal?
SB: Compared to paper-based documentation or scattered data storage, ELNs are light-years ahead when it comes to data integrity. Being the central hub where all scientists record their daily work, organize their data and collaborate with others, digital lab notebooks play an important role in reproducible science. If you then think about it, it feels dangerous to leave data integrity hostage of situations like an incomprehensible handwriting, a lost documentation or someone leaving the lab.
Digitizing your research using an ELN as central hub means making it immediately accessible and readable to your team, collaborators and external partners. It makes it easier to give and get feedback, correct mistakes and ultimately expedite new discoveries. In addition to providing an integrated platform for data and collaboration, don’t forget to mention the temporal integrity:
Whereas paper notebooks and scattered data are points on a timeline that can fade out of view pretty quickly, labfolder for example retains the history of each entry, how a researcher started thinking about an experiment, what data was produced, how it connects to other pieces of research, long after the individual researcher left the lab.
Therefore it is impossible to discuss reproducible science and ignore the electronic notebook as the perfect solution for basic research documentation.
RM: What makes labfolder’s ELN distinct in what is an incredibly busy market?
SB: The market is indeed busy and getting busier every year. But as I mentioned before, for us it is more important to revive the topic of meticulous documentation, what advantages it has in terms of individual productivity and in the bigger picture. Then, we help scientists to make the shift from paper to digital. I do not see other ELN providers as competitors but as partners in the digitization of research documentation and good data management.
Since the beginning of the company in 2013, we focused our attention on creating a product that is intuitive and easy to use while still being compliant with good laboratory practices. Good scientific documentation should be effortless and that is what labfolder offers to scientists.
Simon Bungers was speaking to Ruairi J Mackenzie, Science Writer for Technology Networks