I’ve always had a problem with lab notebooks. Something about cutting and pasting the results of cutting edge research into a paper-lined notebook just doesn’t sit right with me. Whether or not you agree on my position concerning the place of arts and crafts in the lab, you can at least admit that it often doesn’t make sense to print out and tape down our digital results and analysis. My trek into the world of electronic lab notebooks was first inspired by my dislike of paper notebooks, but this ended up being just one of the many reasons why I would never go back.
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 you often find yourself struggling to read what you wrote last week, if 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.
In the past, technological limitations kept researchers from digitizing their day-to-day work, but now that we all seem to live glued to our computers, this is no longer a legitimate argument. On the other hand, there are still some issues with going completely digital. Sometimes, a handwritten notebook is still the simplest way to ensure that your records are legally acceptable, which may be an issue if your work is patentable or if you’re working with an industrial partner. Whether or not this may be a problem for you is something that you should investigate before starting an ELN. It can also take time to switch from analog to digital as there is no “one size fits all” electronic lab notebook. Take a day to figure out a system that works for you; Kelly recently talked about adapting your writing software to your writing style, and the same idea applies to your ELN software and tools.
To start you off, here are a few tools that some of us in my lab have been experimenting with.
Evernote  is an extremely versatile note-taking software that seamlessly syncs between devices. We’ve talked about Evernote many times before because of how useful and versatile it can be (like here  or here ). The beauty of this program is how well it translates our paper-based notebook keeping methods to a digital form. Rather than using scissors and tape to cut and paste images or tables to a notebook, you use control/command-c and -v. 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. For example, my Evernote lab notebook is organized by experiment with all procedures, results, and analysis on a single page. But if I want to find out the history of a particular sample, each experiment is labeled with all samples involved in that experiment so I can quickly view that as well. 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. I prefer to connect my documents by linking to files rather than pasting images directly in the note because the editing features within a note are fairly limited; picture resizing isn’t possible, nor is it possible to use symbols or superscripts/subscripts within the text.
There is more specialized lab notebook software available (Labguru , iLabber , or PerkinElmer electronic lab notebook software are some examples), but for us grad students who often have “free” listed as our top criteria in choosing software, these aren’t ideal as they can be costly and are directed more towards entire lab use than to individual researchers (but if anyone has experience with these or similar programs, we would certainly be interested in hearing about them!). Evernote is free up to a monthly usage of 60 MB/month. If you have large files that you’d regularly like to upload, there is the possibility of upgrading to a premium account for $45/year. Other types of notetaking software such as Microsoft OneNote  for Windows or AquaMinds NoteTaker  for Mac may also work well. Deciding on the appropriate software is critical to the success of an ELN, so do your research ahead of time and if something isn’t working for you, don’t give up before trying something else.
For those who aren’t ready to give up their pen and paper, the Livescribe Smartpen  is a great way to digitize your lab notes. When the pen is used with Livescribe notebooks, the notes can be converted to digital form along with recorded audio. The uploaded notes go directly to Evernote where they can be easily integrated into your ELN.
The pen was my first step into the digital lab book world. I didn’t like the idea of bringing my only laptop into a wet lab, nor did I like the idea of buying a new tablet computer just for lab work. Adapting your style is critical to success though, which brings me to the next tool…
Tablet or Laptop Computer
A few events led to my recent purchase of an iPad (including a change in financial situation and a summer of back discomfort from carrying my laptop while biking to campus everyday), but the intent was never for it to become part of my ELN workflow. But as these things go, I couldn’t resist trying it out in the lab after downloading the Evernote app, and now, I’m hooked. I slip the iPad into a plastic bag to protect it from the inevitable spills that happen in a lab, and I recently ordered a flexible, washable, Bluetooth keyboard; with these tools, I believe I will have made a complete transition to a fully electronic lab notebook.
The main benefit of a tablet over a laptop is its size. If you’re one of the rare and lucky students with limitless lab space, then your laptop may work perfectly well. If you find yourself constantly having to fight for space or often moving between labs, you may find a laptop inconvenient. If a laptop is your best option though, it can be done! Several of my labmates use laptops to record all of their day-to-day lab work, and they find that the benefits of having an ELN overcome the disadvantages of dealing with a bulky laptop.
This mostly refers to a camera on a smartphone or tablet. It’s often convenient to have a visual record of your experimental set-up or to take a quick picture of a sample. Using your phone to snap a quick picture that goes directly to Evernote is faster than drawing a sketch or describing the sample with words, and can be useful when trying to repeat experiments or recall a sample’s appearance.
One final tool is not a “tool” in the traditional sense, but I’ve found it to be one of the most helpful – discussions with other researchers using ELNs. My labmates and I often discuss our methods of digitizing our research, our favourite software, and our organizational strategies. We learn from one another, we share ideas, and in doing so, we constantly improve our systems. I’ll also reiterate that it’s important to discuss the transition with your PI or supervisor, since you are not the only potential user of your lab notebook. If you’re alone in your pursuit of a paperless lab, I encourage you to reach out to the internet to share your ideas and be inspired by others – we look forward to hearing them. Happy experimenting!
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?