What are they?
Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs) are software counterparts to paper lab notebooks. Although the name suggests a physical notebook device, ELNs are actually just software that runs on a computer, although some ELNs have apps for tablets and phones. The ELN interface resembles a notebook page, with fields for creating text entries and for attaching and annotating data files. Most allow you to create and modify templates for frequently used protocols. Other functionalities may include inventory tools that allow you to track samples and reagents. Some have chemistry tools for drawing and searching on chemical structures.
UW-Madison has piloted a couple of ELNs (http://academictech.doit.wisc.edu/ideas/electronic-lab-notebooks) and we are currently evaluating a few others that have recently emerged. Interest in ELNs at the UW has grown over the past 2 years from a few interested researchers at the start of the pilot to hundreds of interested researchers. In response to this interest, a campus wide effort spearheaded by the Office of the CIO, WARF, CALS, and DoIT is seeking software, funding, and infrastructure to establish an enterprise ELN service.
Are ELNs useful for data management?
In general, ELNs let you keep data and descriptive information (e.g. materials, methods, analysis, and interpretations of the data) in digital form and all in one place. (An exception may be digital data files that are too large to upload/attach to the ELN. In that case, links can be added in the ELN to the server location of these files.) For simplicity in the following discussion, we’ll refer to both data files and the descriptive information as “data,” although the descriptive information might more accurately be called metadata.
Storing data in ELNs
From a data storage perspective, ELNs come in two flavors: those that can be locally hosted and those are hosted and store data in the cloud.
Locally hosted ELNs have the advantage of keeping data on campus servers. However, they usually consist of application, file system, and database layers and can be fairly complex to install, administer, and maintain for individual labs and departments. An enterprise level ELN service could provide some economies of scale by providing a common infrastructure to provide the hardware and services needed for a locally hosted ELN.
Other ELNs are cloud services that store data in the cloud, external to UW servers. However, there are a lot of questions about security, protection of intellectual property and other issues when research data is moved to the cloud. An advantage of an exploring an enterprise cloud ELN would be that the university could negotiate for favorable terms with vendors to secure agreements about the geographic location of cloud servers, segmentation of the our data from that of other institutions, encryption and advanced security provisions, etc., through a purchasing exercise.
Organizing and Tracking Versions of Files
When it comes to keeping an audit trail and preserving versioning information for entries and attached data, ELNs have a lot going for them. ELNs log time, date, user names and actions, and track version information. In many ELNs, these audit trails are designed to meet Federal government requirements for electronic records: the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, Part II Electronic Records; Electronic Signatures.
Sharing and Collaborating
Similar to collaborative tools such as Google Drive, ELNs let you tag, comment, define workgroups, and share entries, files, folders, and templates with specified groups and individuals. In addition, a few labs on campus have been showing data recorded in their ELN at lab meetings and find that generally works out well.
Most ELNs also have features that allow electronic signing and witnessing of entries, enabling a level of legal documentation needed for research leading to patents.
Exporting and Archiving
Most ELNs let you export (and print) entries as PDF files and data files that are attached in their native formats. Some have xml and/or html export formats. However, there are no standards for exports which would make it easier to move records from one vendor’s ELN to another. We’d like to see that happen.
One of the strongest arguments for using an ELN system is its promise as a solution for data stewardship. Since the campus data stewardship policy specifies data be retained for at least 7 years (longer for some types of research), an enterprise ELN service would need to have a backend archival system. This would allow older data in the ELN to be moved to cheaper storage but would still allow search and retrieval from the archive with the appropriate access permissions in place. Researchers can also save ELN entries in PDF format and retain both print outs and electronic versions of these files.
ELNs also offer the potential for publishing data. For example, one ELN provides a permanent digital object identifier (DOI) for each entry, which have been used in a publication.