With its growing adoption in the laboratory, an electronic lab notebook, or ELN, can be a useful tool to aid research, whether in academia or industry. But I found there is limited information on the practicalities of an ELN in a wet lab. Wet labs are a messy business, so strict guidelines are put in place to prevent spillages and contamination. It may seem absurd to use digital software while conducting experiments with innumerous hazards, but do the benefits of using an ELN in a wet lab outweigh the risks?
The majority of wet labs use paper lab books, few of which transfer the information from paper to an ELN. This is largely due to hazards involved in a wet lab, where the use of laptops or desktops is ill-advised. It is much easier to simply use a paper lab book, to keep all live results jotted down on paper. Furthermore, if a wet lab is using an ELN, scientists still have to use a paper lab book and copy some research notes into their ELN software at a later date.
A large issue with using an ELN in the wet lab is the inaccessibility of protocols. It is effortless to bring a paper lab book into the lab to see past results or double check some protocol results. But there is much more difficulty when it comes to ELNs since you can’t bring your laptop into the lab.
Nevertheless, the inability to bring a laptop into a wet lab isn’t the be all and end all. Some wet labs use tablets that are shared by several scientists, allowing protocols and previous research notes to be easily accessed while working.
The need for stringently organized lab books in wet labs can make ELNs seem more appealing. Many labs have strict controls on the data’s structure, to ensure its integrity and compliance. Some ELNs offer a dedicated templates section in which scientists can store and reuse their laboratory protocols and/or SOPs. Moreover, since those protocols are usually shared amongst several scientists, an ELN can help to guarantee that each colleague has access and is using the correct protocol. This maintains a consistent project structure, for easier research organization.
Moreover, by having a system in which team members can collaborate in real time, I saw supervisors providing immediate feedback through the use of an ELN. No more meetings had to be scheduled for supervisors to check content from paper lab books. That is the beauty of storing laboratory data online in an electronic lab book. Projects can be accessed from anywhere in the world. This also means that when a group member leaves a project, the data will not be lost with the person carrying the lab book.
As the lab is becoming more digitized, ELNs harness the simplicity of data transference. I could simply drag and drop digital data from microscopy images straight into an ELN. Hence removing the need to print and stick these results into a paper lab book. Moreover, with an ELN, data is more organized and easily accessible through advanced search and filter options.
ELN technology has recently advanced to the point where voice recognition can be converted into text, and there are countless other advancements in ELNs that are making the wet lab much more productive and efficient. For example, as the integration of laboratory data directly into ELNs becomes more likely to occur, the benefits of ELNs will be hard to miss up on in the wet lab. If you work in a wet lab and are searching for a solution, this comprehensive guide of the best electronic lab notebooks may prove useful.