How Can the Benefits of Electronic Lab Notebooks Eliminate Research Inefficiency?

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benefits of electronic lab notebooks
While an improvement over outdated, paper-based systems, digital spreadsheets and word documents can result in disjointed R&D workflows. The benefits of electronic lab notebooks may be the solution to these shortcomings.
Image source: Flickr CC user Sarah Cady

While we like to imagine research facilities as being centers of cutting edge technology and streamlined efficiency, sometimes the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. In many laboratories, researchers still rely on paper notebooks to hold all information pertaining to current experiments: protocols, calculations, assay parameters, and any deviations. In an ideal world, every worker keeps accurate records but even the most perfect paper notebook suffers from some drawbacks. What if it’s misplaced? Or exposed to a benchtop accident involving a chemical spill?

When it comes to processing data, the system in many laboratories is a little better. It often includes downloading the raw results from instruments, which are then imported into a spreadsheet and manipulated as necessary. It sounds more efficient in theory, but is it really? Working with spreadsheets is typically a solitary endeavor. Collaboration means manually sharing the spreadsheets via email, which introduces a whole set of new pitfalls in today’s modern era of research. What if the email goes astray, or is never sent in the first place?

Considering the problems introduced by these methods, research facilities should consider other, better ways to store, analyze and share information. The first step in going paperless is transitioning to a digital-based system. The next—and perhaps more important—step is determining whether the system adopted by your organization is the most efficient.

The Benefits of Electronic Lab Notebooks Minimize Disjointed Systems

This blog has previously discussed the advantages of simplifying lab management through the use of digital inventory systems. Among the benefits include improved compliance reporting, better tracking of shared materials between laboratories and easier monitoring of reagents across large organizations.1 If we can witness such boosts through the use of digital inventory systems, then why not the same for electronic lab notebooks?

At this point, it’s doubtful that anyone will argue the advantages of a paper-based system over a digital one, but what about digital systems based on spreadsheets and word processing documents? Let’s take a closer look at some of their weaknesses:2

  • Vulnerable to human error: Many lab workers are familiar with the frustration caused by unnoticed transcription errors or misaligned rows. Depending on when these errors are uncovered, it can take hours to rectify the mistake.
  • Unconducive for collaboration: As mentioned previously, the maintenance of documents and spreadsheets tends to be a solitary effort. Sharing information with colleagues requires extra steps that introduce the potential for more inefficiency.
  • Insecure IP protection: Word processing documents and spreadsheets are vulnerable to alterations. Likewise, the typical way to share these files with collaborators is through email. Not only is there a risk of the email going astray, the format is vulnerable to hacking.

On the other hand, digital notebooks solve these problems in elegant ways. Among the benefits of electronic lab notebooks are:

  • Cloud-based system: Rather than sharing files with collaborators via email, all people working on a project can access the notebook directly.
  • Security controls: Only people with the proper credentials can access the information. As an added layer, varying levels of access are available. For example, a lab manager could have access to all of the information contained in the notebook while a technician would only be able to access a specific part.
  • Date and time stamps: Not only can data be locked so it can’t be altered, edits can be tracked via date and time stamps, making changes transparent.

The Benefits of Digital Lab Notebooks Outweigh Those Offered by Other Digital Solutions

Spreadsheets and word processing documents aren’t the only digital-based systems researchers have adopted during this shift to paperless lab solutions. The rise of tablets has led to a proliferation of note-taking apps, many of which offer sharing options to colleagues. The pervasiveness of the internet has created several cloud-based database and information-sharing platforms.

Despite the variety, however, these tools are intended are general use. While they can be used within the laboratory, they weren’t created for the laboratory, so they may not have specific features needed by researchers.3 For example, note-taking apps may be highly efficient and shareable but they also don’t handle tables well. That immediately puts researchers in an awkward position because the majority of experimental results and analysis require tables. Rather than piecing together a digital system from disparate applications, organizations should adopt a solution designed to support scientific research and collaboration. To that end, an electronic lab notebook may be the answer they’re seeking.

BIOVIA Notebook is a flexible, electronic lab notebook that allows research facilities in all industries to boost productivity by supporting collaboration and information sharing while also protecting intellectual property and offering security controls. By eliminating inefficiencies introduced by paper-based systems and disconnected applications like spreadsheets and documents, firms can instead concentrate on developing innovative new products and retaining their market advantage. If you’re interested in learning how the benefits of electronic lab notebooks would ease your organization’s efforts to go paperless, please contact us to learn more.

  1. “Lab-inventory management: Time to take stock,” August 3, 2015, http://www.nature.com/news/lab-inventory-management-time-to-take-stock-1.18108
  2. “Top 10 Disadvantages of Spreadsheets,” Last updated January 8, 2016, http://www.denizon.com/spreadsheets/top-10-disadvantages-of-spreadsheets/
  3. “Going paperless: The digital lab,” January 25, 2012, http://www.nature.com/news/going-paperless-the-digital-lab-1.9881