SciNote scientists

8 reasons why an electronic lab notebook enhances research reproducibility

6 min read

“Rigour, reproducibility and robustness. These remind us of the reason why we became scientists in the first place.”

From Nature

Why should we care about replicable research?

Scientific reproducibility is the cornerstone of good research practice. Without reproducibility, the scientific methodology would not exist. Reproducibility means that another researcher from the opposite side of the world should be able to achieve the same results when following the same experimental plan that brought you to those results. And reproducibility is allowed and ensured only by a detailed documentation of the conducted experiments.

How an ELN (short for Electronic Lab Notebook) can help your team tackle reproducibility of research data

While ELNs were introduced to make experimental documentation more straightforward, they quickly became way more than a mere replacement of paper lab notebooks thanks to enhanced functionality. Let’s take a look at the top reasons why a digital lab notebook can ensure the transparency and integrity of your scientific data.

1 – ELNs provide centralized data management

With the increasing volume of research data being produced at the moment, there is a clear need for transparency and reproducibility. Having a centralized and structured data management system like an ELN is the first step to having a workable and unified form that efficiently allows insights, analysis, and decision-making. When working in a large organization, it could be difficult to capture the amount of knowledge and data generated by the hard work of many talented scientists working on different projects. An ELN addresses this need by incorporating all structured and unstructured data in one single, searchable place. In addition, ELNs generally also provide excellent auditing features that could be valuable for your organization. Importantly, ELN also provide an extra level of security. While a paper lab book can be lost or stolen, ELNs feature password protection and several steps of authentication, ensuring the safety of your centralized data.

2 – ELNs make tracking information easier

With the possibility of adding images, videos, external links, and other supplementary files, using an electronic lab notebook allows much easier tracking of information. A great advantage is that ELNs are searchable, so if you are looking for an experiment you did one year ago, there is no need to look page-by-page through your written notes. Just type the topic or the type of experiment, and you’ll find it within seconds.

3 – ELNs resolve the issue of poor handwriting and unclear notes

Scientists have used pen and paper since the beginning of time. And while handwritten notes from pivotal scientific discoveries can be fascinating to see in a museum, the times have now changed, and we have the technology to avoid problems related to this. For example, using an ELN resolves the issues of unclear penmanship and poor handwriting, which can cause long-term problems. By definition, the nature of the work of scientists is flexible and changing laboratory or company is a very common instance. When people leave behind poorly handwritten notes, the reproducibility of the experiments is hampered and a significant amount of valuable time is wasted trying to decipher unclear writing. Recording all the experimental details in an ELN is a solid way to avoid potential mistakes, especially in the future, when other researchers check handwritten protocols, notes and results. In addition, by using an ELN you also eliminate extra waste and unnecessary use of paper, which is always good for the environment.

4 – ELNs ensure the longevity of your research

Every scientist must have heard or pronounced one of these sentences at least once in their working life.

“I need the raw data from an experiment I did years ago but I don’t remember where I stored that information”

“I need to replicate an experiment from a colleague and need the exact protocol, but that person has left our organization”

When performing research, longevity of the results is not necessary the first thought. However, archiving and backing up data is becoming increasingly more important, especially with the amount of new data generated every year. Using an electronic lab notebook to document your experimental details and results immediately provides a permanent digital archive of the data, avoiding the risk of losing precious pieces of information in remote filing cabinets. This ensures the longevity of your research, providing peace of mind to you and your funders. Using an ELN makes backing up your data effortless since you can store a copy on a cloud system or locally. This means that the protocols you’ve spent so much hard work optimizing will be accessible to whoever comes next in the lab.

To conclude, ELNs enable lab members to keep all their protocols and related research data safely stored and organized in one place. As highlighted in a 2019 paper published in F1000 Research, electronic laboratory notebooks are good for science, good for society, and good for scientists. They ensure scientific reproducibility and data integrity while making scientists’ lives easier. It is estimated that, on average, scientists save 9 hours per week by using an ELN, meaning that, after the initial learning curve and investment into the software, they can expect a return of investment within three months. In addition, in today’s world, ELNs are an invaluable tool for remote working.

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5 – Using an electronic lab notebook allows sharing within the same laboratory or department and beyond

Two cornerstones of best research practice are detailed documentation of experiments, which is essential to ensure data integrity, and the possibility to share those documents, which is essential to ensure transparency. With an ELN, you have the ability to export and share your scientific data easily and in different formats. This leads to an easier and more transparent flow of information within the same laboratory, department and beyond.

6 – You’ll be able to access your scientific documentation form anywhere

In March 2020, when the world was shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many labs told their teams that they were closing for an unspecified amount of time. Life scientists were asked – often for the first time ever – to work from home. With very little notice or preparation, researchers had to find new ways to continue their work and data analysis. However, there is clear evidence that remote or hybrid working is here to stay, even beyond these unprecedented times. With your research data safely stored in an electronic lab notebook, documents are accessible from anywhere with a safe internet connection, permitting researchers to carry on their data analysis without any disruption. Safety is always paramount for ELN designers so you won’t need to worry about this, even in a remote setting.

7 -ELNs support FAIR principles

Recording research data on ELNs not only enhances scientific reproducibility but also supports the FAIR principles that are now widely recognized as essential by the research community. FAIR stands for Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability, and Reusability and emphasizes the fact that data related to scholarly publications should be findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable, both by humans and computers. By complying with the FAIR principles, you ensure your research gets the maximum impact and reach possible.

8 – ELNs can make the publication process easier

Some ELNs can be integrated with MS Office, Mendeley, PubMed, or Dataverse, making the publication process easier. Think about having everything you need to get that first manuscript draft done in one place! For example, SciNote’s premium feature called Manuscript Writer will give you a draft of the introduction, materials & methods, results and references of your manuscript. Of course, the final version will be edited and adjusted by the scientists who have worked on the project, but the time and effort saved are significant.

If you want to know more about ELNs and how to transition to a digital lab notebook, contact us, and a SciNote specialist will be able to answer your questions.

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You can also read all our testimonials from academia and industry, showing the time-saving and efficiency advantages of using an ELN.

By Dr Arianna Ferrini, biomedical scientist and medical writer