Electronic laboratory notebook

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

Splice has been actively following the changes and improvements of the Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs) landscape to provide you with the latest information. This June (2020), we updated our list of the Top 9 Best ELNs you can currently choose from. Our review focuses on ELNs that offer the best price-performance ratio.

ELNs from PerkinElmer, Agilent Technologies, BIOVIA (formerly known as Accelrys) and IDBS are missing from the list as their features are more appropriate for regulated environments. At the moment, there are over 100 ELNs available to researchers. In this updated article, we have expanded our previous list of the top 7 ELN list to the top 9 ELNs that fit our criteria and can support academia and the industry. The reviews follow 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 has 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 is 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 big repeatability threats, enormous costs and considerable limitations for knowledge sharing within an organization and the community.

To be fair, paper lab books have done a fairly decent job up to this point. Many features make it great; e.g. they’re inexpensive and don’t require batteries to run. On the other hand, there are only a few things we have not 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 a level of output like never before imaginable. With hundreds of emerging knowledge-sharing platforms, data can now be globally distributed 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 sending analytical data directly into a single software platform. No more running around with USB sticks, copy-pasting, printing, cutting and glueing. Please, do tell more.

Introducing the Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN)

ELN stands for Electronic Laboratory Notebook, but it spans far beyond just 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 are set up as cloud-based software (like Dropbox). This means that researchers can seamlessly collaborate in real-time, eliminate tedious manual data exchange, and overcome hurdles in communication. 

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

Since 2000, when worldwide governments issued laws granting all electronic records the same validity as paper records, the number of available ELNs increased exponentially. Today, 75% of labs are showing interest in the technology. The fact that these numbers keep rising with every update to this article (annually) is an excellent sign for ELNs and science in general. Still, naysayers who claim that using paper is easier than its electronic counterpart remain. But is that really the case? Universities conduct whole courses on paper lab book documentation – just look at this lab notebook maintenance manual from Columbia University and decide for yourself what is really easier. If we learned one thing during the COVID-19 crisis, it is that organizations can very rapidly switch to digital if forced to do so.

You might also be interested in: Return on Investment When Implementing an Electronic Lab Notebook

Whatever your stance on electronic lab notebooks may be, it is clear that a digital revolution is at our doorstep. With over 60 ELNs out there, it is tough to decide where to even start. That is why we rounded up the 9 very best ELNs that will make your transition easier for when you choose to take that 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, business model and monetization
  • Free version (yes or no)
  • Cost efficiency

 

The verdict – Our choice of the 9 best ELNs

Editors' choice

1. SCINOTE

sciNote score

PROS:

  • Intuitive and easy to use
  • Inventory management and MS Office integration
  • Automatically generates reports & manuscript drafts
  • Exports all data in a readable format and API
  • Free account option

CONS:

  • No integration with CRISPR/CAS9 genome editing software

sciNote score

2. RSPACE

4.3 excelent score

PROS:

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

CONS:

  • Not open source
  • GUI could use improvements

4-4-5 score

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:

  • The free plan is tied to a single user and has limited functionalities
  • Limited (support) video content
  • Cannot create reports
  • Expensive and niche-oriented

4-4-4 score

PROS:

  • Useful add-ons and integrations
  • Flexible structure for protocol generation
  • Collaboration option
  • Good inventory management

CONS:

  • No video support content and unclear access to support page
  • No real-time communication
  • No free option

4-4-3 score

PROS:

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

CONS:

  • Not very intuitive
  • Unflattering structured design
  • The free version is limited to 3 team members

Labfolder score

PROS:

  • Pubmed references entry editor
  • Integration with GraphPad Prism

CONS:

  • The graphical user interface needs improvements, not intuitive
  • Quite complicated, additional training necessary
  • Not a lot of storage space in the free version (25 MB)
  • Not open source
  • Limited support, direct contact

2-3-4 score

7. MBOOK

2.7 score good

PROS:

  • Supports all operating systems and browsers
  • Suitable for high-level chemistry labs

CONS:

  • No free account, only free trial
  • Niche interface, not very intuitive
  • Not open source
  • Only suitable for chemistry labs

2-3-3 score

8. LABGURU

2.3 score - good

PROS:

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

CONS:

  • Not very intuitive
  • Project view too complex
  • No free plan available
  • Expensive subscription
  • No video support content

2-3-2 score

PROS:

  • Mendeley Data Repository integration

CONS:

  • Poor GUI
  • No support content
  • Cannot import inventory or protocols
  • No preview of attached files
  • Not compatibile with Android

2-2-2 score

Each lab has its own set of expectations, intents, and capabilities, which will most likely never be fully met by a single, universal ELN.

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 of withstanding the test of time as they are already compatible with smartphones, tablets, and many other digital gadgets and platforms. The instruments will follow next.

Looking to implement an ELN? We can help. Download our free ELN Vendors Validation Chart

Conclusion

It’s an exciting time to be a researcher. We are witnessing a digital revolution in science, and we’ll get to explore the benefits it brings. The COVID-19 restrictions will likely accelerate that transition and have indeed already done so. 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.

Decided to give ELNs a try? Here’s a step-by-step guide to selecting the best one for you: A Complete Guide to Selecting an Electronic Lab Notebook for Your Lab


By Luka Zupancic MSc, University of Applied Sciences Technikum Vienna

*Splice is a scientific news blog funded by BioSistemika LLC, a software development company that also co-founded sciNote LLC (free open-source ELN). All of the ELNs included in this review were scored by an independent author and researcher, based on the major criteria identified in the largest study on user perception of electronic lab notebooks ever published, to provide the most relevant and objective insights for our readers. The author states that the views and opinions are entirely his own.

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