Examining the Numbers: How an ELN Directly Supports Laboratory Operations and Efficiencies

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I recently met with a group of scientists to discuss electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs). These individuals had expressed concerns regarding ELN adoption and my goal was to better understand their position. I was expecting to hear the typical responses for not adopting an ELN, including financial concerns regarding ROI or concerns about changes in management. However, I was surprised to discover that this particular group of scientists believed that adopting an ELN would actually make them less efficient.

If implemented, ELNs can improve laboratory operations
Since ELNs are more compatible with laboratory equipment, they can actually improve laboratory efficiencies.
Image source: John Crawford via wikimedia.org

Their argument for this was based on the idea that entering data into a computer is not as convenient as grabbing a pen and jotting down a quick note in the notebook. In addition, they also noted that there may be technical problems, such as downtime for system updates or network issues that would reduce ELN availability.

I believe that these arguments are short-sighted. True, there may be some downtime or other technical concerns, but the potential amount of time saved overall makes up for the inconvenience these minor issues may cause. To understand this, let’s take an honest look at the numbers associated with efficiency in laboratory operations when using a paper-based notebook and an ELN.

Paper-Based Notebooks

Paper notebooks have been used by scientists for the past several hundred years. In general, they have served as excellent laboratory companions. However, as the laboratory as modernized and data sets have become exponentially larger, paper-based notebooks have begun to significantly lose their effectiveness in laboratory operations. For example:

  • Copying and Pasting Results – As laboratory equipment has allowed for more automation of tasks, most of the results generated during an experiment are recorded directly within a computer. Since these results need to end up in the notebook, scientists must print them out, cut them to size and paste them in. It is estimated that 30% of a scientist’s week is spent on documentation, part of which is an arts and craft project of sorts. Assuming a standard 40-hour week, approximately 12 hours a week is spent on documentation, some of which is inefficient.
  • Repeating Experiments – Another inefficiency that occurs in laboratory operations is repetition of experiments. This is largely due to the fact that data cannot be located within the notebook. It is estimated that 30%-40% of all experiments are repeated a second time because it is quicker to repeat than find the information in a lab notebook. Assuming that a scientist repeats two experiments a month and that these experiments take four hours each to perform, that is approximately eight potential hours of inefficiency a month, or roughly two hours a week.
  • Collaboration – When collaborating with colleagues, there is a significant need to efficiently share data and notes in order to keep everyone informed. With paper laboratory notebooks, this might include typing the same information recorded in a notebook into an email to be sent to the team. The alternative is to photocopy pages of the notebook and send them as attachments, which is a tedious process as well. Then there may also be meetings to ensure that everyone is coordinated. Based on all of this, it’s safe to assume that paper notebooks add an additional two hours a week in collaboration inefficiencies.

Based on the assumptions above, scientists spend approximately 16 hours a week on administrative tasks associated with paper-based laboratory notebooks, leaving only three days a week, or 24 hours, for the real work of developing hypotheses, designing experiments and analyzing results.

Electronic Laboratory Notebooks

Unlike their paper counterparts, ELNs are designed to be compatible with the needs of the modern laboratory. This allows for increased efficiency in the following ways:

  • Documentation Efficiencies – ELNs are designed to interface directly with laboratory equipment. This allows data to be imported directly into the ELN without the tedious task of copying and pasting. It is estimated that ELNs reduce documentation time by approximately 25%. Assuming that scientists currently spend 12 hours a week on documentation, an ELN would reduce that by three hours.
  • Experimentation Efficiencies – Another benefit an ELN provides is the ability to quickly find and locate experiment results. An ELN has the capability of potentially eliminating any repeat experimentation. Based on our assumptions above, this could eliminate two hours a week that is currently spent on experiment repetition.
  • Collaboration – ELNs have the ability to centralize all of the documentation in one place for easy collaboration. This eliminates the need to enter information twice, or scan and attach notebook pages. In addition, most ELNs come with collaboration tools like instant messengers and group communication to ensure that everyone stays in the know. Although it does not eliminate the need to coordinate, ELNs allow this process to occur more efficiently, saving approximately one hour per week.

With the added functionality of an ELN, time spent on documentation drops from 16 hours a week to 10 hours a week, a 60% increase in the amount of time that can be spent developing hypotheses, running experiments and analyzing results.

Final Thoughts

Although there may be other legitimate concerns for not adopting ELN technology, inefficiency should not be one of them. Electronic lab notebooks are designed to improve laboratory operations by making scientists more efficient with regard to documentation, experimentation and collaboration.

For more information regarding how the Accelrys Notebook can help your team be more efficient, please visit our website today.

5 thoughts on “Examining the Numbers: How an ELN Directly Supports Laboratory Operations and Efficiencies

  1. I think the repeating experiments argument in the paper-based notebooks section would be enough to convince me its time for a switch. I found it pretty shocking that 30%-40% of all experiments are repeated a second time. It would seem that a data point like this would convince even the most conventional of scientists that it is time to upgrade.

  2. I know technology has benefited my life but I am not a fan of making any type of book/notebook obsolete. When I am writing notes I prefer to have something tangible. I stress to my students the importance of maintaining a notebook, writing eligibly, reproducibility, etc. I think if my students or myself would t rely on submitting notes electronically I would feel as though I am completely letting technology take over my thoughts and life!. Nothing beats a pencil and paper.

  3. Shana, thanks for commenting, and I appreciate your concern. Your bring up an interesting point. Does the format of the note taking (book versus software) dictate how thoughts are recorded? I am not sure I completely agree with that idea, but it is an interesting thought.

  4. Like any new technology, it’s going to be looked at with some skepticism at first. I definitely hope this takes off, but the main hurdles of getting acceptance is training people on using it and showing that it will truly save time and more importantly, $$$s in the lab.

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