Electronic lab notebooks

The 9 Best Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELN) Review for Your Research

Splice has been following the changes and improvements of Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs) for the past six months. This November (2016) we extended the list of Top 7 to Top 9 Best ELNs you can currently choose from. Our review is focusing on ELNs that offer the best price performance ratio for universities and research institutions.

ELNs from companies such as PerkinElmer, Agilent Technologies, BIOVIA (formerly known as Accelrys) and IDBS are missing from the list because their features are more appropriate for regulated environments and are often too expensive for academic labs. At the moment there are approximately 100 ELNs available to researchers. In this updated article, we are focusing on the top 9 of available ELNs that fit our criteria. Reviews can be seen below.

Paper-based lab notebooks

It is no secret that the paper-based laboratory notebook is the most widely used form of experimental data tracking in labs worldwide. It´s been around for several centuries (even da Vinci had one) and you will find it in the cabinet of every scientist. But does that necessarily imply that it´s also the most efficient way of recording scientific data?

Experimental records that aren´t being digitized account for 17% loss of all research data and lab books are becoming the bottlenecks in information management. This poses great repeatability threats, enormous costs and considerable limitations for knowledge sharing within an organization and the community.

To be fair, paper lab books seemed to have done the job pretty well so far and there are many features that make it great; e.g. they´re inexpensive and don’t require batteries to run. Yet there are only few things we haven´t modernized for over a century, let alone a millennium. Technological advances simply make things better and you won´t find anyone doing their taxes on an abacus.

A glimpse of the future

Automation and digitization enabled researchers to achieve outputs like never before. With hundreds of emerging knowledge sharing platforms, data can now be distributed globally before you can say “DNA”. The integration-based approach has allowed science to flourish and interoperability is swiftly becoming the new buzzword in modern research. Imagine all your instruments can send the analysis data directly into a single software. No more running around with USB sticks, copy-pasting, printing, cutting and gluing.

Introducing the Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN)

ELN stands for Electronic Laboratory Notebook, but it goes far beyond just being a replacement for paper. It brings forth systematical, safe and efficient data storage along with interoperable data distribution.

The majority of the recently developed ELNs were set up as a cloud-based software (like Dropbox) which means that researchers can also seamlessly collaborate in real-time, eliminate tedious manual data exchange and overcome hurdles in communication. And best of all, an ELN doesn´t have to stay locked up in the lab when you leave.

Science student holding tablet pc in lab at the universityFigure caption: Did I mention that electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are coffee-proof?

Since the worldwide governments issued laws stating that all electronic records have the same validity as paper records in 2000, the number of available ELNs increased rapidly. Today, approximately 8% of labs already started implementing ELNs and the number of those who are thinking about implementing one has risen by 10% in less than a year (Survey in: Webinar Learn how to pipette like a pro) . Yet naysayers remain, who often claim that using paper is easier than its electronic counterparts. But is it really? Universities conduct whole courses on lab book documentation – just check out this lab notebook maintenance manual from Columbia University.

Whatever your stance on electronic lab notebooks may be, it´s clear that a revolution is slowly but surely coming. With over 60 ELNs out there it is really hard to decide where to start. That´s why we rounded up the 9 very best ELNs out there that will make your transition easier when you choose to take the red pill.

Our criteria – ELN features under the magnifying glass

User Experience_ELN_1 USER EXPERIENCE

  • Graphical user interface (GUI)
  • Intuitiveness
  • Support (on-line support, available manuals and video tutorials)
Interoperability and flexibility_ELN_1 INTEROPERABILITY AND FLEXIBILITY

  • Multi device compatibility
  • Working with different operating systems and browsers
  • Cloud
  • Real-time collaboration
  • Instrument integration and open APIs
Business model and pricing_ELN_1 BUSINESS MODEL AND PRICING

  • Licensing model
  • Free version (yes or no)
  • Cost efficiency

 

The verdict – Our choice of the 9 best ELNs

Editors' choice

1. SCINOTE

PROS:

  • Very user-friendly and quick to set up
  • Unique experimental workflow
  • Open source license (MPL)
  • Free account with unlimited project users

CONS:

  • Drawing molecules still in development

SCINOTE

2. BENCHLING

PROS:

  • Very user friendly and quick to set up
  • Useful DNA tools (CRISPR guide and primer design)
  • Templates for sequence mapping and sharing
  • Free account with 10 GB of storage space

CONS:

  • Free account is tied to a single user
  • Report structure is not flexible

 

3. RSPACE

  RSpace eln review

PROS:

  • Possible archive management, built-in metrics and analytics
  • Can connect to the eCAT sample tracking system
  • Supports chemical structures
  • Free to use

CONS:

  • No local installation
  • Not open source

R-eln

 

4. LABFOLDER 

PROS:

  • Sketching
  • Free account for smaller teams and free mobile app
  • Integration with Mendeley

CONS:

  • Not very intuitive
  • Unflattering structured design
  • Free version is limited up to 3 team members

5. LABARCHIVES

PROS:

  • Pubmed references entry editor
  • Interface with GraphPad Prism

CONS:

  • Graphical User Interface needs to be improved
  • Quite complicated, extra training necessary
  • Very low amount of  storage space in free package makes it unsuitable for most users
  • Not Open Source

 labarchives review

 

6. DOCOLLAB

PROS:

  • Easy to use with useful tips
  • Free account

CONS:

  • Not possible to write comments
  • Not compatible with mobile devices
  • Local installation is not possible

 

7. LABGURU

PROS:

  • Advanced tagging system for easy search
  • Track recording from batch number to concentration

CONS:

  • Not very intuitive
  • Project view too complex
  • No free license available
  • Expensive monthly subscription

8. HIVEBENCH

PROS:

  • Plate designer
  • Free account with 10 GB of storage space

CONS:

  • Creating protocols is very rigid
  • No possibility to create tables
  • Free account is tied to ten users
  • Works only on iOS

 

9. MBOOK  

PROS:

  • Supports all operating systems and browsers
  • Can be used in different fields of science

CONS:

  • No free account
  • No local installation
  • Not very intuitive interface

mbook review

Each lab has its own set of expectations, intents and capabilities, which will most likely never be fully met by a single universal ELN. Open source electronic lab notebooks provide a perfect solution, as they can be customized for specific applications and further inspire innovation from the community of end users. Free electronic lab notebooks also have higher adoption rates compared to those that have no option for a free user account as users take no risk by paying for something which at the end they don’t like.

Labs of the future will indisputably rely on interoperability of their instruments and devices. I believe that ELNs we have listed here will be capable to stand the test of time as they are already compatible with  smartphones and tablets. The instruments will follow next.

Conclusion

It´s an exciting time to be a researcher. We are witnessing a digital revolution of science and we´ll get to explore the benefits it brings. The electronic laboratory notebook is at the helm of the revolution when it comes to labs and a much-needed breath of fresh air in experimental data management. There are now several great ELNs to choose from, each providing its unique set of tools to make your work easier and more effective. I hope this review will help you choose yours and make a step towards a digital tomorrow.

 

By Luka Zupančič, University of Applied Sciences Technikum Vienna

 





 

Leave us a comment:

27 Comments Published

by Santi Dominguez , post on 13 March 2017 | Reply

Hi, Luka,

Thank you for the article and for reviewing Mbook (I am the CEO of Mestrelab, anyone reading my comment should be aware of that).

I wanted to comment to point out a couple of inaccuracies.

Firstly, Mbook does have a free 45 day account, for those that want to try it out. Your reason to give a significant amount of weight to price is the fact that researchers like to try before they buy. This is certainly possible with Mbook. Of course, whether a 45 day or a 10 GB trial are more extensive, depends on the number of users and on the amount of data that is stored in the ELN.

Secondly, Mbook has indeed an in-house installation, as highlighted on our website. It is designed as a Cloud Solution, but we make available an installer for in-house installation to any institutions not happy putting their data on the cloud.

Finally, intuitiveness of interface is a subjective matter, and therefore I cannot really comment on your evaluation there. Mbook is designed for synthetic chemistry, and it makes sense to evaluate it from that viewpoint. It is aiming at making the creation of reactions, stoichiometry tables, experimental protocols and the attachment of analytical and other data to experiments as simple as possible. Of course, that may not work so well for other workflows or use cases, which it is not targeted to doing. From a synthetic chemist perspective, I would expect that structure editor, structure search, integrated inventory, self populating stoichiometry tables and immediate access to all analytical data are all points to value, which do not seem to be considered on your review, so this might be a point worth making.

Best Regards

Santi

by Luka Zupancic , post on 15 March 2017 | Reply

Hi Santi,

thank you for your feedback, I appreciate you taking the time. Allow me to comment on the points you highlighted.

1) The »Free version« score refers to weather a free version of the software exists, which can be used continuously and not merely tried out. I do not see a 45-day account option as a free version but rather as a trial, which is also how it is advertised on your web page. However, I did appreciate the trial version and did award Mbook a respectable 4/5 points in the »Business model and Pricing« category.

2) I now understand you offer an in-house installation and I appreciate you bringing that up for the readers. This seems to be an honest mistake on my part, however I do recall that feature was not communicated very clearly at the time of my testing. I would be happy to take it into account in the upcoming update of this review.

3) You put it well and there is not much left to be said. The UX is in its nature a subjective matter and I´m positive people with different backgrounds would score differently. However, I did focus on aspects that make an ELN user friendly to a broader range of users (i.e. researchers), and not a very specific segment. I am not a synthetic chemist and did find myself frequently stumbling over hurdles in design that unfortunately diminished my experience with Mbook.

I would like to state that Mbook did prove as a valid candidate and I definitely see it as a solid ELN. That´s why I included it on the »Top 9« list, among many others that did not do the job as good.

by Paul Freedom , post on 8 March 2017 | Reply

Just a small remark: Is a bit strange that the first place goes to the company that powered this list: Biosistemika LLC

by Luka Zupancic , post on 9 March 2017 | Reply

Hi Paul, thank you for your comment, this has already been discussed bellow. Posting my reply again for your convenience:

“As a researcher frustrated with the limitations of paper lab books, I´ve been looking for an ELN for quite some time. In the process I also tried out sciNote and even participated in it´s beta testing phase. It was the last ELN I tested and it proved to best fit my needs.

Having finally found my ideal solution, I volunteered to write a piece about my journey of finding an ELN for Splice, to show my support and to help others in the same frustrating situation I was in for so long. The article offers an overview of the ELNs I’ve tried, as well as my personal evaluation of them.

Splice is an independent blog with contributions coming mainly from independent researchers from various institutions, such as myself. I still use sciNote every day and I firmly stand by my opinion, expressed in this article.”

by Mark Watson , post on 9 March 2017 | Reply

Hi,

Although your justification is reasonable, there is a lack of unbias analysis. For example:

In INTEROPERABILITY AND FLEXIBILITY section you mentioned 5 bullet points:

Multi device compatibility
Working with different operating systems and browsers
Cloud
Real-time collaboration
Instrument integration and open APIs

I personally tested LabArchives and Labfolder and both meet all the requirements, but end just with 3 out of 5.

Curiously, scinote does not offer an API (according to their own FAQ) and lacks dedicated mobile apps (there is just a shortcut option as they mention here https://scinote.net/product/mobile/) but they still had a better evaluation in that category :)

by Luka Zupancic , post on 9 March 2017 | Reply

Hi Mark, thanks for your input!

You bring up a valid point there and I do agree with you, everybody is entitled to their own opinion and many people would have surely scored the ELNs differently, based on their own needs and experiences.

In terms of interoperability, mine were not the best with LabArchives and Labfolder at the time of testing. Please note that this article is a second revision of the original one, and it could very well be that both products experienced updates in that area since then. However, if you scroll down you will find other people reported interoperability issues with the ELNs in question as well.

You are spot on regarding sciNote, those limitations are on point and did land them a lower score. Since their mobile version actually worked great for me and still does, I only deducted one point for the lack of an API.

by Stelios , post on 23 February 2017 | Reply

I am surprised to not see the Findings app amongst these! I have just tried sciNote and I would say that the user experience of Findings the the functionality it offers are far superior. You would need to pay for a license, but I definitely think it’s more than worth it!

by Luka Zupančič , post on 23 February 2017 | Reply

Hi Stelios, appreciate your feedback! Findings ELN does seem like an interesting pick after a quick inspection, however I do realize it is only available for iOS systems. I run all experiments in a PC setting and generally find solutions that are limited to a single platform disadvantaged. If a PC version comes out any time soon and an update to this review ever occurs, I would be happy to give Findings a try.

by Christoph Seiler , post on 20 February 2017 | Reply

FINDING AN ELN (DUMPING SCINOTE)
Thanks for putting a list of these together, this seems to be the only place on the www that has some comprehensive review of ELNs. I run a research core and we do several projects for multiple labs and we really need an ELN. I am just testing a few, and hopefully will find time to write more about my impressions and final choice.

I wanted to comment about the ratings in this review: I believe that pricing is largely over-emphasized here, a product that takes more work to create will obviously create more costs and be more expensive. User experience also seems to lean towards simple programs, it seems that more complex ELNs with more modules are rated poorly just because it took the reviewers more time to understand the different parts. If an ELN will be used for standard operations am am willing to pay for it and spend some time to learn how to use it.

I believe that is what put the rather bare-bones ELN “SCINOTE” on top of the list. SCINOTE is the first one I dis-regarded, yes their licensing is free for most and sharing is somewhat easy, but recording procedures is frankly a pain. There is no way to add tables and calculation formulas, no annotation of result files, no sketching and no repository to organize reagents that are created.

by Luka Zupančič , post on 27 February 2017 | Reply

Hi Christoph, thank you for your input! You bring up a good point, not all of the ELNs and their features in this review are equally important for everyone. Obviously expectations from lab to lab and researcher to researcher will differ and you highlighted some very good examples of that.

I tested the ELNs based on personal requirements, which I believe resemble those of a “typical researcher”. I needed a solid and reliable ELN solution to solve my everyday issues with experimental design and laboratory data management for a reasonable budget. I defined the scoring criteria to best represent those needs, which I believe correlate to a much larger portion of researchers out there. However, I absolutely agree with you, if the criteria were set in a different manner, the outcome would undoubtedly differ accordingly.

by Allen Doyle , post on 13 January 2017 | Reply

Great review. Rspace looks well adapted to academic labs from my cursory review. Glad to hear others work as well.
As someone who works across campus, and bridging researchers and facility managers I see the frustration of overfilled freezers and abandoned freezer contents when scientists retire. Facilities and office of research might support the costs of enterprise installations if ELN and sample management databases include expiration date defaults (that may be updated). This would enhance discarding of expired, forgotten or spoiled samples, which may comprise 30% or more of a freezer contents.
Does any university or department have enterprise installations? Which platform?

by Luka Zupancic , post on 13 January 2017 | Reply

Hi Allen, thank you for your feedback!

I have to agree with you there, this was a problem I faced in all the labs I have worked at so far. Many of the above included ELNs contain some form of sample inventory (eg. Labguru, Benchling, sciNote, etc.), which can be used to monitor samples about to expire as well. For example, I currently use sciNote, which allows me to assign my samples to sample groups (eg “soon to expire”) as well as to individual projects and trace them in that way. Hope this helps!

by Roger Summers , post on 14 December 2016 | Reply

All of these products still require a post process review, are clunky and cause more problem than they intend to solve. Check out Archware. This ELN comes with lanyard worn scanners to be used with a tablet device that allows you to simply scan components and instruments to auto-populate information. Plus the informationis reviewed immediately at the time of entry, avoiding errors before they can happen.

by Luka Zupančič , post on 14 December 2016 | Reply

Dear Roger,

thank you for your feedback and for your suggestion. However I never came across Archware and after inspecting their web page, I noticed that they refer to the product as a quality management system and not an actual ELN. As such, I do not consider it a top contender on the list of ELNs.

by Arturo Casini , post on 7 December 2016 | Reply

The post does not disclose that this blog is actually operated by the developers of SciNote, which coincidentally ranks #1 in this list. I like SciNote but I find this a bit offputting. Can you comment on this?

by Luka Zupančič , post on 9 December 2016 | Reply

Dear Arturo,

Thank you for your question. As a researcher frustrated with the limitations of paper lab books, I´ve been looking for an ELN for quite some time. In the process I also tried out sciNote and even participated in it´s beta testing phase. It was the last ELN I tested and it proved to best fit my needs.

Having finally found my ideal solution, I volunteered to write a piece about my journey of finding an ELN for Splice, to show my support and to help others in the same frustrating situation I was in for so long. The article offers an overview of the ELNs I’ve tried, as well as my personal evaluation of them.

Splice is an independent blog with contributions coming mainly from independent researchers from various institutions, such as myself. I still use sciNote every day and I firmly stand by my opinion, expressed in this article.

by Erica , post on 6 December 2016 | Reply

Another great ELN solution to consider – BookitLab ELN
Simple and intuitive, perfect for start ups and bio incubators.

by elabftw , post on 24 October 2016 | Reply

Hello,

Please consider also eLabFTW, a free and open source ELN.

by Earl Beutler , post on 3 October 2016 | Reply

Thanks for your review. As full disclosure, I am the co-founder and CEO of LabArchives.. While I can’t argue with your subjective criteria, there are definite factual inaccuracies in your article as it relates to our product. For example, one of the “cons” for LabArchives is that “Local installation not possible”. This is untrue: We have offered a locally installed version since 2010 and have many users of this product, including the NIH. You also suggest that “Attached PDF files lose their format” which is also untrue. All files keep their original format.

I would also question some of your grading criteria. For example, under the category of “INTEROPERABILITY AND FLEXIBILITY”, LabArchives meets all of these (we have iOS and Android Apps, are Cloud based, work on all leading OS and browsers, include real-time collaborative tools, have an extensive and robust API, and include a free tool, FolderMonitor, that allows importing of data from scientific instruments. And yet you score LabArchives just 3/5 stars.

I hope that you will take a more careful look at our product. We would be glad to arrange a demonstration so that you can better understand the functionality that you are reviewing as well many other powerful tools that it includes.

by admin , post on 4 October 2016 | Reply

Hello Earl, thank you for the insight and your comment. It came just at the right moment, we are planning to post the updated version of the article, with more in depth information. We value your opinion and will be glad to update the information on your product. The number of ELNs available today is growing and good information is crucial. The authors of articles on Splice provide opinion from their point of view as experienced scientists and IT enthusiasts. We believe LabArchives is one of the Top ELNs available today, depending on the preferences and needs of specific labs. We are glad you reached out and provided more information and good critique. It is greatly appreciated.

by James Burchfield , post on 5 January 2017 | Reply

I have used LabArchives for ~2 years now. It works, has good levels of control and oversight. To me what it lacks is project and data management integration. In the digital age the ideal would be a system that integrates all these things. It should simplify everyday life and improve workflow and data retention and transparency between lab members. IT should contain a protocol repository, the key steps of which are automatically imported into any given experiment. It should have the facillity for integrating and manging repositories/registries or reagant lists.
LabArchives is very much a blank canvas that requires the user to impose structure and order it. I would rate it 3 /5. This is with referentce to the ideal which to my knowledge does not exist. I cannot comment on any of the others as I have not used them.

by Robert Day , post on 12 August 2016 | Reply

Two other obvious choices you left out: RSpace ELN, which is specifically designed for integrated academic Research Data Management (RDM) workflows (try the free version at community.researchspace.com) and for high compliance labs, CERF (cerf-notebook.com) which has been in continuous use by research labs worldwide for more than a decade.

by Luka Zupančič , post on 14 August 2016 | Reply

Hi Robert, thank you for your comment. I did come across RSpace and CERF, they both indeed seem like solid ELN platforms with several useful and unique features. However Rspace just barely fell short of reaching the top 7 list due to its somewhat dull and non-intuitive GUI, while CERF was not accessible online without having to write a personal email to the developers – which I find is a major disadvantage.

by Wouter de Jong , post on 15 July 2016 | Reply

Good review! Seems that you missed out reviewing some other great solutions however, such as the Electronic Lab Notebook eLabJournal.

by Luka Zupančič , post on 19 July 2016 | Reply

Hi Wouter, thank you for reaching out and for your comment. I did come across eLabjournal but was unfortunately unable to register an account with a private email address. I saw/see this as a major drawback for many researchers, who do not have an organization domain (eg. students, contractors,…) but would nevertheless like to transition to an ELN.

by Wouter de Jong , post on 19 July 2016 | Reply

The system is open for anyone to trial the system, so I would be happy to offer you a free eLabJournal trial. Part of the system functionality is also to offer sharing options across labs within the institute. For the best user experience, intitute recognition is automatic based on email domain of the institute.

by Helen Kasimiotis , post on 8 July 2016 | Reply

This is very interesting, Would I be able to speak to get in touch with a consultant in Melbourne, Australia?

Regards, Helen

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