Return on Investment When Implementing an Electronic Lab Notebook
15 min read
The aim of this article is to evaluate the return on investment of implementing an electronic lab notebook in the lab.
Among numerous solutions and research tools available today, scientists are choosing electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) to complement the paper-based approach to record keeping. On the example of SciNote ELN, we demonstrate that apart from other benefits, switching to an ELN has a significant impact on researchers’ productivity. We compared the time researchers needed to perform their tasks prior and after the ELN implementation in their labs and calculated the return on investment (ROI).
On average, researchers save 9 hours per week by using an ELN, while doing the same amount of work!
For some researchers, time savings amount to 17 hours/week! They are now able to work 33% less on reporting, 16% less on scheduling and planning and 6% less on emails. After the initial learning curve and investment into software, scientists can return their investment within 3 – 4 months.
Comparison of time spent for weekly amount of work without and with SciNote
“With SciNote I save time on various tasks throughout the day and when all of it sums up I can go home earlier or invest that time in my priorities”, states David Frommholz, startup co-owner at DALEX Biotech and lab manager at Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences, Germany.
We interviewed 7 proficient SciNote users to determine the time they need to perform their tasks with and without having SciNote i.e. prior and after the ELN implementation in their labs. Interviewees have different job positions (PhD, Lab Manager, Startup co-owner, research associate etc.), and due to these differences, time gains varied across different work categories.
Image 1 and image 2 (below) show the comparison between the h/week researchers spend working on a particular subject without SciNote and with SciNote. They were asked to evaluate the time needed to perform the equal amount of work. The charts show median/work category and median/person.
On average, researchers save 9 hours per week while using an ELN. For some, time savings amount to 17 hours/week!
Image 1 – Comparison of time spent for weekly amount of work without and with SciNote (median/work category)
We see that researchers are more efficient when doing reporting, scheduling and planning of their work, as well as answering emails.
Image 2 – Comparison of time spent for weekly amount of work without and with SciNote (median/person)
Users’ explanations of time savings (by category)
For most researchers, the time they spend attending the meetings does not change so much after ELN implementation, however, the time invested in preparations for the meetings does.
“With SciNote, I can actually save 50% of time I would normally invest in preparation for and attending the meetings”, says A. Alhourani, PhD student at University of Stavanger, Norway.
Structure of data within an ELN enables you to always be prepared. Your data is in order. You can talk about the progress of your work without needing to look for your files or flip through pages.
Because ELN can be used as a collaboration platform as well, some meetings can even be avoided as comments on results, feedback and delegating tasks for example, can be shared via comments and notifications.
“In academia, even more time is saved from the supervisor’s perspective, because numbers multiply as the number of students increases”, Alhourani further explains,
“Electronic lab notebook is useful when you’re asked to bring up stuff that happened a long time ago”, Alhourani says. “Without SciNote, I’d need to invest the double amount of time to prepare an email if I’m asked for a file and need to dig it out. This is where SciNote really helps”, he continues.
Besides fast search through all research data, ELN can be used to avoid certain emails overall, by posting comments directly within the software and keeping team members, students or supervisors notified instantly.
ELN enables lab members to keep all their protocols and related research data organized in one place. In addition to the advice and mentorship from their supervisors, authorized lab members can find and access the needed information for their work. This reduces the time spent on asking for instructions.
“All information regarding each project is in SciNote, so instead of explaining all that has been done or how we did it, I can let people review the project. Everything the student needs, to be prepared for lab work, is in one place “, says Dorothea Hoepfner, PhD student at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. “Finding the protocols is much quicker due to the access to protocol repository. It is very easy to find the protocols, print them out etc”, she continues.
Class preparation and course administration
These two categories are often related and even if an ELN cannot take over such tasks in general, it can be useful as a platform on which content for lab classes can be organized.
In addition, “it is easier to review what the students did, to see whether their data is correct and in place, when compared to handwriting”, Hoepfner explains.
Scheduling and planning
“Planning experiments became more convenient with SciNote. For example, if you have to plan and compare the same experiments with different results, it is easy to have an overview, compare, plan and improve”, explains Alexandra Ehl, startup co-owner at DALEX Biotech and scientific associate at Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences, Germany.
Many labs today plan their experiments directly within an ELN as it offers more than just a way to keep records organized. Lab data can be connected within an ELN – inventory items can be assigned to experiments, results associated with protocols and more. This enables detailed overview on what has been done and how to plan the further progress of the project.
“Now that I have everything in one place in SciNote, I can replicate the experiments and build upon them which saves me up to 30% of time when planning and scheduling my future work”, elaborates Alhourani.
Workflows are one of SciNote’s unique functionalities that have proven to be useful when planning lab work. They allow users to create and define lab processes by connecting the “cards” containing notes, pictures, protocols etc. into a sequence. This allows users to better visualize the entire process that is not necessarily linear, set up due dates and follow the guidelines within each part of the process.
“I have found SciNote to be my top choice among the ELNs. I particularly like the workflows in the experiments and the integration with Microsoft Office. The workflows also help in my teaching of novice scientists. SciNote has set a new standard for the future of data management in the field of medical science”, says A. Sougiannis, NIH predoctoral fellow at University of South Carolina School of Medicine, USA.
SciNote users say that up to 5 hours per week can additionally be invested in research while using an ELN.
“I save at least an hour per day that I can either invest in further research or go home earlier. SciNote allows me to stay in the lab longer, because I don’t need to spend so much time on the administration tasks afterwards”, Frommholz explains. “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 SciNote. In our lab, we even started thinking about tablets to take SciNote directly from the office to the bench.”
The use of an ELN results in time savings throughout the day that sum up and give the researcher a certain amount of extra time to invest in priority activities, such as research, grant applications or networking.
“Soft benefits apply when it comes to research”, says Alhourani. “ For PhDs research is the priority, so even if they are using an ELN in their everyday work, they’d still spend the same amount or even more time on research. But an ELN helps in reducing the time needed for other tasks so that they can either invest more time in research or potentially leave home a bit earlier.”
When starting to write a paper, many scientists face the headaches of pulling all the literature and research data together. It is difficult to start with a blank page and a typical article takes between 50 – 100 hours to write. With Manuscript Writer add-on by SciNote users can simply select relevant experiments, add references and a draft of the manuscript is generated automatically and instantly.
“SciNote makes it easy to connect the data with what you did and write the experimental part. A lot of ambiguity is saved because you’d never put the complex dataset in the paper notebook. It saves at least 25% of time needed for the experimental section of a paper. If you are working with collaborators, the benefits are even higher, because all data is in one place and it saves even more time.” Hoepfner describes.
While it doesn’t generate the final version of the manuscript, it generates a draft that can be further improved and edited.
“Without SciNote it would take so much time to compile all data. Now that we all have everything in SciNote, the lead author can take charge of everything easily”, Alhourani adds.
ELN enables you to automatically create a report by selecting which research data you want to include i.e. which experiments, notes, protocols, results, pictures etc. Time savings here are immense as this functionality creates a detailed report in a couple of seconds.
Hoepfner points out that “reporting becomes a lot quicker with SciNote. Especially if you have a very short notice reporting request – ‘We need the data tomorrow’. You’re always prepared.”
Generating, editing and printing reports is also useful for labs who need to keep paper records as well as electronic ones. Since all project related data can be instantly presented in the form of a report, they can print it and store it regularly alongside their electronic records.
“Time spent on writing reports dropped from 3h/week to 3h/month”, Alhourani adds.
ELNs contribute to good data management practice in labs. Among the benefits of managing research data is the compliance with funding agencies’ requirements as well. ELNs cannot directly cover the tasks of preparing the grant applications (yet), but the overall time savings related to having all data organized are quite substantial. As we see on the image 3 below, time saved is often used for applying for grants, which means more funding and even greater ROI.
“I have more time to do grant writing. I gained 20% more time to do it.”, Frommholz says.
While other activities greatly depend on lab’s way of work and cannot always directly be supported by an ELN, the flexibility of an ELN is an important functionality that enables labs to use it as they find suitable.
Some labs use it to store their innovative ideas – “Even random project ideas can be set up in SciNote as dummy projects that have the outline of the general idea, and saved in SciNote. You can then see it later on and develop your ideas further, even after a couple of months”, Hoepfner describes.
For others, it is important to be able to access your data on the go – while changing labs or even being away on a conference. “Another benefit is that you have your data with you everywhere you go. This is especially useful if you switch labs often and move to another building”, Ehl further elaborates the benefits of having a safe, mobile friendly, web based electronic lab notebook.
If you are working in academia, but interested in building your own startup business as well, you can also gain more time to build that business. “Because of SciNote I have more time for sales and support”, Frommholz adds.
Additionally, ELNs can also be used to exchange knowledge and keep up with the literature and scientific news.
“We use SciNote for literature overview, discussion and sharing as well. We set up a project that is divided into experiments i.e. research areas. We use tasks and protocol steps to add and organize articles we can comment on. If something new was published, or you know someone would be interested in a specific article, you put it there and everyone is notified”, shares Alhourani.
Download a PDF presentation of SciNote functionalities
Relative gain or reduction of workload
We normalized the data across all interviewed researchers to a 40-hour work week and investigated how the transition to SciNote impacted their average week.
Image 3 shows that, on average, they are now able to work 33% less on reporting, 16% less on scheduling and planning and 6% less on emails. This allows them to focus more on their research or lecturing, and gives them 17% more time to devote to grant applications.
Image 3 – Relative gain or reduction of workload.
ROI of electronic lab notebook implementation
On average, a designated person needs 1 week (56 hours) to become a highly proficient SciNote user and set up their entire system in SciNote. This would normally spread in the course of 3 months.
“It took me around 40 hours that spread over a period of 2-3 months to establish the system and transition to SciNote. I needed the most time to think how I want to organize everything. My team then took over from there and are now happily using it”, says Jonathan Fadok, assistant professor and principle investigator, The Fadok Lab, Tulane University USA.
Image 4 shows the return on investment when implementing an ELN in the lab. We assumed no gains in the first three months and included the cost of premium SciNote service.
Image 4 – ROI of ELN implementation in USD per month.
“The main cost is related to you determining how you want to have everything organized and the transitioning itself. But after 2-3 months, you already start noticing the benefits”, Fadok concludes.
Onboarding of the lab team
The rest of the team on average needs a significantly lower amount of time to understand the software than the initial designated person (or a small team) who established the system in the first place. Based on the user’s feedback, on average 1 day (8 hours) would be enough for a new person to fully understand the system that has been set up in SciNote by their supervisor and be confident in using it.
The best approach is to have one designated person to set up the system and then introduce it to the rest of the team.
“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.
By using an ELN, researchers can return their investment within 3 – 4 months and gain, on average, 9 hours of extra time per week to invest in their priority activities.
It is important to note that only 7 users were included in this study so the actual time savings might be different. However, we have seen significant time savings with 6 out of 7 people, which gives us confidence in our results.
Capabilities of today’s ELNs extend beyond the initial record keeping. They enable individual researchers and/or R&D teams to organize their data and manage their projects, inventories, protocols and more.
Some solutions go even further with their set of functionalities, to meet the requirements set by regulatory authorities, such as the FDA’s CFR 21 Part 11.
While some users do use an ELN individually, in most cases these solutions are used on the level of a lab group, an institution, a company or even the entire faculty, university or larger organization. Every lab has its own system in place. Even if the processes are paper-based, in today’s digital age scientists have to use different digital solutions for acquisition, processing and data management.
ELN’s major strongpoints
- Having all data and entire IP in one place – annotated, connected and searchable
This is the main benefit ELNs can bring into the lab. Everything is traceable – from each inventory item to the latest experiment results and final project reports.
This contributes further to the overall IP protection, as data is no longer scattered across different software solutions.
- Smooth transition when an employee leaves the company
Archiving, backups, organized data in one place and standardized record-keeping enable smoother and faster transition if an employee leaves the lab.
It is incomparably easier to continue where they left off or find data related to one sample that was processed years ago, for example. This results in having almost no set-backs, as the new person is ready to continue with previous work almost instantly. Costs related to such set-backs are therefore minimized.
- User permissions disable an unauthorized access to data
Users have defined roles and permissions that define their access to data and actions they can perform within the software.
- Timestamped activity records enable you to know exactly who did what and when
Live monitoring of results and work being done is automated and the activities of each user are recorded and time stamped.
- Comments, tagging and delegating tasks within the ELN result in efficient collaboration and less meetings
Posting comments, tagging lab members, annotating data and delegating tasks by assigning users and due dates reduces the need for numerous meetings to convey the same information.
- Administrative tasks such as looking for files, re-writing, flipping through pages and copy-pasting are reduced to the bare minimum
Once your system is set up within an ELN, your data becomes interactive. You can save templates and re-use them in future experiments. Your samples, reagents or instruments are directly annotated within your experiments. History of each item is one click away. If you are looking for something, just use search.
- Collaboration with external partners
ELN also contributes to optimization of internal activity and collaboration with external partners. It is useful for smaller and larger organizations to standardize the data and reporting with their outsourcing partners or with customers.
- Data safety and security
ELNs such as SciNote use the strongest data security protocols to protect the privacy and integrity of exchanged information. All data is encrypted and transferred over safe connections. To protect the privacy and integrity of exchanged information, SciNote is already actively working towards implementing the requirements of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation in the EU) as well. To meet the requirements from different institutions, it can also be installed locally.
Electronic lab notebooks can bring ROI in 3-4 months and save 9h/week on average.
Are they worth switching over? Yes!
SciNote Functionalities Overview PDF