Electronic Lab Notebooks

Electronic Lab Notebooks

ELN Pilot Project Status

We are conducting a Request for Proposals and Contract Negotiation to obtain an ELN product for a campus ELN service.




Final Report from the

Electronic Lab Notebook pilot


Electronic Lab Notebook Pilot Project at UW-Madison

In the early winter of 2012, UW-Madison’s WARF, DoIT, CALS, and the Office of the CIO collaborated with researchers in a few labs on campus to test Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs) to learn if they offer advantages over traditional paper lab notebooks.

Electronic lab notebooks

ELNs are software tools that provide an interface much like a page in a paper lab notebook for entering protocols and observations and attaching digital data files. They are widely used in labs in the private sector but only in a few higher education institutions, currently.

Traditional lab notebooks

Keeping a paper lab notebook to record experimental work is a tradition in many disciplines. To understand how useful paper lab notebooks are in the era of digital instruments and data, we interviewed researchers in a variety of disciplines on campus.

All of the researchers interviewed still use paper lab notebooks. They commented that paper notebooks are good for writing down procedures, observations, and conclusions and for drawing flow charts and diagrams by hand. In order to accommodate digital data, researchers tape instrument or computer printouts onto the pages of their notebooks or cross-reference larger data sets by recording file names and locations in the notebook. However, even though they find paper lab notebooks are still useful, many would consider switching to an electronic lab notebook if it were available.

Why consider an electronic lab notebook?

While paper lab notebooks are generally effective, there are a few disadvantages that led some of the researchers in our study to believe that ELNs might be an improvement. The most common reasons they gave for considering an ELN over a paper notebook are:

  • Finding things
  • Reducing redundancy
  • Records keeping

(Other reasons researchers mentioned for considering ELNs include: sharing with collaborators, portability, and better data management.)

Potential advantages of electronic over paper notebooks

  Paper: the good and bad Electronic: the potential
Finding things

Good: Paper notebooks are a good chronological record of experimental work.

Bad: Dates are not always a good method for locating key experimental results years later.

Several PIs in our study indicated they spend a lot of time searching through lab notebooks of former students for records of particular experiments.

ELNs are designed to allow searches across text. Many let you annotate/tag data and include annotation terms in searches.
Reducing redundancy

Good: A well-kept bound notebook can be a complete record from cover to cover.

Bad: In order to practice good digital data management, some researchers told us they enter some of the same information (such as protocols, instrument settings, etc) again in their digital data files or copy portions of data files by hand into their notebooks. In effect, they are keeping 2 separate records!


ELNs keep protocols, observations, and digital data all in one place. You enter information once and retain it as an electronic archive. You can also print out pages to take with you to the bench.
Records keeping

Good: Paper lab notebooks are well-established evidence of inventorship and authorship for patents and publications.

Bad: Paper is fragile, and many researchers do not keep photocopies or backups to guard against loss due to fire, floods, etc. Many do not sign or witness lab notebooks properly.

Electronic documents can also be considered a legal record of the discovery process.

Many ELNs support electronic signatures, logging of user actions, and audit trails that meet Federal government requirements for electronic records: the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, Part II Electronic Records; Electronic Signatures.

Timeline of pilot project

Based on the responses we received from our study of current lab notebook practices, we embarked on an ELN pilot project during 2011.

Early winter, 2011

Study current lab notebook practices of a sample of researchers at UW-Madison.

Late winter, 2011 Develop requirements for ELN software, based on study results. Completed
Spring, 2011

Gather information about ELN software (Request for Information)


Summer-Fall, 2011

Evaluate and select software products for the pilot (Request for Proposals). A contract with Rescentris (CERF), dated 11/15/11, was the result of the RFP.

Demos of ELN software (8/1 and 8/2)

Establish partnership with CALS to include eCAT in the ELN pilot

Early winter to early spring, 2012

Recruit participants and install software 

Researchers in pilot labs will use ELN software (CERF or eCAT) to record their research.

Summer, 2012 Evaluate and disseminate results from pilot labs. Investigate a larger scale offering to more labs on campus. Final report Completed
Spring 2013 Investigate a few new ELN products that appeared on the market since the RFP and ELN pilot Completed
Summer 2013 - Spring 2014 Conduct a procurement to obtain pricing and terms with new ELN vendors. Develop a business model for a campus ELN.  Underway

Goals of pilot project

Based on experiences of pilot labs, we hope to learn the following:

1. Are ELNs easy for researchers to use? What is the learning curve for working with them?
2. Do they offer flexibility to researchers for keeping track of their work? Do they get in the way of research?
3. Do they make it easier to find things? Improve data management? Make records keeping more efficient?
4. Do they make it easier to share findings with collaborators, where appropriate?
5. On the technical side, do they integrate with campus identity management architectures? Scale to accommodate large numbers of users? Store data in a manner that protects intellectual property of researchers and keeps private data secure?
6. How well do they support compliance requirements, including version control, data retention, and signature management?

What’s your opinion?

What is your opinion about the future of lab notebooks? Are you interested in trying an ELN? What features would be most important to you? Tell us




ELN125349.pdf510.4 KB
ELN_pilot_report_UWMadison.pdf558.94 KB