27 Jul

Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs)

In today’s technology-driven world, replacing the old trusty paper lab notebook with an electronic version is quite appealing. I’ve often thought it odd that I would take my digital data and print it out to tape into the composition book that served as my lab notebook. I then bought a Galaxy Note 8.0 to take notes during my classes. That is when I decided to switch to an electronic lab notebook or ELN.

An article by Jim Giles in Nature highlighted some of the benefits of going paperless in the lab – more detailed records, more accessible data sharing, improved efficiency, and even the potential to extract results from data due to improved methods of searching and analyzing. It’s also great if, like me, you often find yourself struggling to read what you wrote last week, you’re constantly flipping through pages looking for that one experiment you did that one time, or if you find that your lab notebook is starting to shed papers like your dog sheds hair.

There are several options for ELNs. Lab Archives and eCAT are two options that are designed specifically for laboratories. They both offer free versions, but you need to upgrade to access all of their functions. Many people are also adapting note taking software such as Microsoft OneNote and Evernote to their needs. Again, there are free versions of both of these available.

After checking them all out, I chose Evernote.

Evernote is an extremely versatile note-taking software that seamlessly syncs between devices. It allows for the transition from the old paper and tape to the new digital rather seamlessly. Rather than using scissors and tape to cut and paste images or tables to a notebook, you use control/command-c and -v. You paste the attachments right into the note or attach a file that can be quickly viewed or opened for further analysis.

The program also allows for efficient searching – the search function will even find text within images – and multiple levels of organization. I’m currently in the process of trying to optimize my layout within the program. I am thinking of organizing by experiment with all procedures, results, and analysis on a single page. Each experiment will be labeled with all samples involved in that experiment so I can quickly view the history of a particular sample.

Some other handy features are the “insert date/time” shortcuts (alt-shift-D in Windows or command-shift-D on a Mac) and the “copy note links” function that allows for a quickly made table of contents and page linking. There is also the added advantage of directly importing snapshots taken with Evernote. You can use Evernote’s WebClipper to capture entire web pages, a particular article on the web you found or save it as a PDF to attach to a note. You can also forward emails directly to Evernote if you upgrade to the Plus/Premium package.

I have noticed that the editing features within a note are limited. As such, I am linking to files rather than pasting images directly in the note. In addition, picture resizing isn’t possible, nor is it possible to use symbols or superscripts/subscripts within the text.

Another advantage is that you can group notebooks together into stacks. I have several “stacks”: my main research project which contains notebooks dedicated to each of the aims of my dissertation project, a school stack where I keep class notes and related files, and a personal stack.

One thing I have discovered is that you want your notebooks to be as discrete as possible. You never want to wonder which notebook a particular note belongs to. If you end up with two notebooks with similar function, you can merge them together.

Here are some additional Evernote resources:

Evernote is free up to a monthly usage of 60 MB/month. If you have large files that you’d regularly like to upload, as well as access to a few premium features such as searching within uploaded files, there is the possibility of upgrading to a premium account for $49.99/year.

Have you tried experimenting with an electronic lab notebook? If so, what tools do you use? How do you integrate them into your workflow and method of organization?