Paper and Electronic Lab Notebooks Can Work Together

10 min read

A symbiotic approach towards understanding the cohesion between paper and electronic lab notebooks.

Living in the technological era of the 21st century, we could be forgiven for assuming that we live in a primarily digital world. Assignments are written and handed in electronically, personal records are stored digitally, emails and text messages have replaced the handwritten letter. Despite all of this, there is one area that still favours paper over technology, the scientific laboratory (Taylor, 2006).

The fact is, paper still holds many advantages over technology. It is cheap, robust, quick and easy to write/scrawl/draw on, and perhaps most importantly, if you spill your cup of tea over it or drop it during a clumsy moment, you aren’t potentially facing a huge bill and a long wait at the Apple store to remedy your mistake.

However, there are some highly valid reasons for digitising the scientific record. Paper cannot be easily searched, shared, or backed up, and it is notoriously difficult to collaborate via paper based systems. Furthermore, the lab can be just as hostile towards paper as it is for technology (Frey, 2004).

These issues contributed to the conception of the ELN (Electronic Lab Notebook), to facilitate long term storage, easy data sharing and backups, search (which lets face it, is almost always better done electronically!) and as a way to protect Intellectual Property by ensuring records are properly dated and maintained. Unfortunately, despite this compelling argument for ELNs, many adoption barriers still remain.

Coming from a computer science background where digitising one’s work is second nature, I struggled to comprehend why scientists seemed to be reluctant to start using ELNs. Therefore, as part of my PhD research (Kanza et al, 2017; Kanza, 2018) I investigated this by conducting focus groups with biologists, chemists, and physicists to establish their current lab practice. I also donned a lab coat and some safety goggles and conducted some lab observations in a number of chemistry labs around the University of Southampton, and conducted a survey of software usage amongst chemists to better understand their technological needs.

An interesting observation that came out of these investigations is that just because scientists don’t all use ELNs, or even like them, it doesn’t mean that they don’t like technology, or that they aren’t using it in their work. All the participants used a blend of paper and technology with respect to their work, typically the core “lab activities” such as experiments were written down in paper lab notebooks, but the data related to these experiments was typically both collected and stored digitally. Additionally, for resources such as papers, reports, thesis documents, presentations and literature summaries, these were all created electronically.

Scientists’ insight on the cohesion between paper and Electronic Lab Notebooks

Below we will address the main points of coexistence between paper and ELNs, based on key findings from my research to see the ways in which an ELN could complement the paper-based lab work and identify areas where there is still room for improvement.

How scientists take notes and organise their work is a highly personal endeavour

Scientists organise their work and take notes in different ways. There are some commonalities in the types of information that is recorded (e.g. dates/experiment numbers) but the processes and organizational structures for these notes differ greatly. Therefore if you are considering creating your own ELN or choosing one to use within your group, it’s important to note that a “one-size-fits-all” approach is not going to cut the mustard, and that customisation and flexibility are key for ELNs.

Today, ELNs offer various ways to write your notes and while some focus solely on note-keeping, other solutions enable you to add even more context to your notes and manage entire projects, inventories and your lab team.

Scientists do use technology to digitise portions of their work despite their continued use of paper

Just because scientists are resistant to or don’t use ELNs doesn’t mean they don’t digitise some (or in some cases a majority of) their work. Whilst the paper notebook is still heavily used inside the lab to take notes, scientists frequently digitise their reports, posters, publications, and use software to analyse and graphically display their experiment data. Additionally the software survey illustrated that chemists do use many different software packages to create structures and diagrams and to aid their research.

We can see that ELNs have transformed in their role, from lab journals towards platforms that can integrate with other systems used in the lab to encompass the broader scope of scientist’s work.

“Scientists’ work varies heavily between fields, methods, equipment availability, and budget to name just a few. Many scientists rely on a number of spreadsheets, notebooks and other systems to track their progress and inventory, which is error-prone and very time-consuming to maintain”, Klemen Zupancic, CEO at SciNote explains. “As the science output increases due to the progress of technology, we will need to build systems that are fully integrated and can automate the data flow.”

Some of the elements of the scientific record that do not get digitised are the things that do not work

Participants stated that the elements in their lab book that didn’t get digitised were the parts of experiments that didn’t work, or alterations to methods and protocols that didn’t have the desired results; suggesting that they wrote up most of their paper notes for working experiments, and that the failed methods were left in the paper lab book. However, it’s worth noting that knowing which approaches do not work can be vitally important, both for the person who initially tried them and particularly for students continuing or referencing their work at a later date.

In the long run, finding old data from previous unsuccessful experiments can be tedious, and sometimes data just gets lost. An ELN can be very useful for knowledge management, by housing all of your project related files (data, notes, results) in one place; this makes it easier to browse and search through these experiments as a whole, years later. Furthermore, this would enable other colleagues to understand what has already been done on a project so work isn’t unnecessarily repeated.

Scientists are much more concerned with backing up electronic work than paper based work

There was a high disparity between electronic and paper backups; electronic backups are commonplace, but typically paper work wasn’t backed up at all. Even the participants who used lab books with carbon pages tended to leave the pages inside the original lab books or would leave them in a drawer in their desk, meaning they were in the same location as their lab book if there were any potential issues such as a fire in the lab. This example was all too real for Southampton students, as this unfortunately happened at our University in 2005 when one of the Electronic and Computer Science research laboratories burned down (see the news article for more details), and lots of valuable research data was lost. It is important to remind scientists that these events do actually occur, and that they need to take precautions against losing their research.

“In order to prevent losses, the first thing researchers can do is take a look at how they back up existing data, whether it is electronic or biological,” says David Silberman, director of the health and safety Programs at Stanford University School of Medicine in Fire Hits UC-Santa Cruz Labs article.

Backups are part and parcel of using an electronic system, therefore an ELN provider should give you the required information about how they back-up your data. However, if you prefer (or require) to keep the information locally at your institution there are ELNs that facilitate standalone installations such that your data can be contained within your institution. An example of this is the University of Southampton’s Labtrove.

Many lab setups aren’t conducive to using electronic devices and a significant ELN adoption barrier is current hardware capabilities

Some lab environments are hostile to technology and unsuitable for ELN usage, either because hazardous chemicals could get spilt on them, or magnets might wipe their hard drives, or because there aren’t safe spaces to put a laptop down. In these situations it’s understandable that paper would be the preferable option. Therefore, if there are situations where scientists would be unwilling or unable to take their electronic devices in the lab irrespective of how good the software was, then the lack of ELN adoption cannot be purely considered as a software problem.

This raises the issue of duplicated data entry, as if the scientists cannot physically use an ELN during their experiments, then they would need to write up their notes into an ELN afterwards, increasing the workload. Furthermore, it seems unlikely in these scenarios currently that scientists would be willing to even trial an ELN based on the hardware barriers. If an ELN was to replace paper, then this issue would need to be addressed, potentially in some cases with cheaper more durable hardware, or better practices where the scientists could still use the devices without being as concerned about them.

Currently, without these procedures in place, there is a limitation to how much an ELN could be fully used throughout a lab, so it might be worth addressing the other software needs first and improving the current digitisation processes before trying to phase paper out.

Cloud based ELNs, even if installed on local servers, can be used on mobile devices as well, which potentially simplifies their use in the lab. They can be accessed from different locations within the lab which also makes it easier for the scientists as they do not have to carry the devices from one place to the next. Even if scientists frequently enter their data after the lab work has been done, the direct input at the lab bench would simplify the process even further.

“Before, I’d have to write everything down, collect the data and format it so that I could print it to fit into the paper notebook. Now I can just save a huge excel into an ELN. In our lab, we even started thinking about tablets to take ELN directly from the office to the bench”, explains David Frommholz, startup co-owner at DALEX Biotech and lab manager at Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences, Germany in an article about the ELN return of investment.

PhD scientists seemed more in favour of ELNs if they had supervisors who thought they were a good idea or encouraged their usage

Participants with supervisors who favoured the use of ELNs typically regarded them more positively, (notably a postgraduate student with a pro ELN supervisor said she wished she has used one from the beginning). Additionally, some of the students who had better backup procedures in place for their paper lab notebooks were those with supervisors who had insisted on more stringent measures than the students who were left to their own devices.

This shows that we shouldn’t underestimate the concept of “Social Influence”, a factor of the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (UTAUT) (Venkatesh et al., 2003) and that supervisors have a special responsibility to embed good note taking, digitisation and backup practices in their students from the beginning.

Scientists remain attached to their paper lab notebooks, and perceive ELNs as a replacement (rather than a supplement) to their paper lab notebook

Despite the advantages of storing notes electronically such as easier searching and improved backup capabilities, scientists remain highly attached to their paper lab notebook primarily because they find various note taking activities much quicker and easier to conduct on paper. This illustrates that the paper lab notebook is still an important note-taking tool that scientists value for its advantages. Many participants stated that when performing their experiments, they found it easier to quickly jot down values and observations in their paper lab notebook, which they were less concerned about moving around or putting down near hazardous chemicals.

Participants also stated that they already had a method that worked and they would be unwilling to change it, or that they felt it would take more time to make their notes on a computer rather than quickly using paper. Furthermore, there seemed to be a false impression that using an ELN meant abandoning one’s paper lab notebook, and participants were less resistant to the idea when that idea was dispelled.

Typically when it comes to technology adoption, potential adopters are looking for a sign that the technology will make a measurable improvement to their work; there if you are trying to encourage someone to use an ELN you need to show them how it will make their life easier, and convince them of the overall benefits to their current work practices. A recently published article that describes the return on investment (e.g. scientists workload before and after implementing an ELN), stated that interviewees said that on average, they saved 9 hours/week after an ELN implementation.

Adoption of ELNs requires more than just good technology, it requires a change of attitude and organisation

Some participants stated that they wouldn’t be willing to digitise their work further, and that no ELN would make them willing to give up their paper lab notebook. This shows how strongly the participants feel about this issue, and how disruptive they perceive ceasing use of their paper lab notebook would be. However other comments illustrate that some participants believe that if they have been given a chance to do this from the beginning then they would have just got on with it and that undergraduates and PhD students should be started off with ELNs from the beginning.

The user studies highlighted an unwillingness to change established practices, with participants stating that they would expect this to cause significant overheads. It is also clear that certain practices are habitual such as making notes on tissue paper rather than on a mobile phone, and when two participants were questioned as to why they wouldn’t consider using Google Sheets instead of emailing each other excel files or manually updating them in person, they said they just hadn’t considered doing so. This demonstrates how certain practices can become routine, even if they aren’t optimal.

“I used to keep my notes in OneNote, which was better than paper notebook as it enabled me to search through the text. However, after a while I decided to upgrade to an ELN. I recommend to implement an ELN when starting with a completely new project and with new research data. This doesn’t cost you extra time, since you would need to write protocols also in the paper notebook, but saves you a lot of effort in the future”, advises David Dobnik, scientific associate at National Institute of Biology, Slovenia in an article.

Therefore, if you are struggling to introduce ELNs or digitisation practices to your students or your lab team, it would be advisable to start addressing these issues at an earlier point in their career. In this way, it would be easier to start new students off with an ELN, rather than trying to instigate a switch to one with students who have already formalised their own work practices and are unwilling to change them halfway through. Otherwise, the best approach is to have one designated person to set up the system and then introduce it to the rest of the team.


There is no need to fully replace the paper lab notebook anytime soon. However, despite the preference some scientists show for paper, many are already storing varying degrees of their work electronically. It would, therefore, be advisable to use an ELN to work in harmony with the paper lab book, link up with the other mobile devices, and be available cross platform (Tabard et al., 2008). Perhaps an environment that was also available on a smartphone or facilitated easy linking between photos on a smartphone and the platform would provide some of the necessary bridging between use of tech in the lab, paper in the lab, and a notebook environment.

Additionally, the user studies elicited results that highlight issues with the current software offerings available for scientists, software packages do not integrate well, and there are arguably too many different tools for a scientist to choose between. This space is too big, and the scientists’ needs too great, to produce one immense bit of software that can solve all these problems at once. Even with infinite money and resources, the time taken to produce and scope out a solution for all would probably put it out of date before it was even finished.

A more viable solution seems to be to produce modules of functionality that can slot into existing systems or provide specific solutions, but in such a way that they can be used in conjunction with other offerings.

During my PhD I worked with BioSistemika, and their ELN SciNote seems to align with these perspectives. It is open source and has been designed in a modular fashion, and they design and develop new add-ons incrementally based on user needs, and given their open source nature are able to encourage the community to develop their own add-ons, collaborate with the SciNote team and give their feedback on future development.

By Dr Samantha Kanza

Enterprise Fellow Network+ Coordinator of the Artificial and Augmented Intelligence for Automated Investigations for Scientific Discovery (AI3SD) www.ai3sd.org

Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences, University of Southampton