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November 20, 2014

Technology Corner: Lab notebooks in the digital age


Leonardo da Vinci did it. So did Charles Darwin, Marie Curie and Grace Hopper. Keeping a lab notebook has been an integral part of the research process for hundreds of years.

Lab notebooks document a researcher’s hypotheses, experiments, data, figures, sketches, equations, analyses and more. In addition to organizing a person’s ideas and efforts, the notebook helps to protect intellectual property derived from the research.

What’s an ELN?

An ELN — or electronic lab notebook — is a digital version of the analog or paper notebook. They’re not specific to the sciences, but are used in many disciplines for their ability to store searchable notes, to share notebooks with others and to save almost anything — not just numbers, text and sketches — electronically.

Using an ELN, researchers and scholars can document both traditional and digital assets. Currently, Pitt researchers use traditional notebooks and several different ELN products, such as CERF, Evernote, IrisNote, OneNote, LabGuru and eCAT.

ELNs capture and store various kinds of research data in one common system. They have a number of advantages:

  • ease of search: keyword searches within the ELN and its related files;
  • simplified backup/copy;
  • support of collaboration, with ability to set controls to “read only”;
  • improved lab management;
  • consistency;
  • preservation of key methods;
  • security and access controls, and
  • direct incorporation of data from instrumentation.

CSSD is working with faculty and department-based technology staff to identify requirements for a cross-disciplinary ELN product that could be centrally supported as an enterprise service available to all University researchers, including students.

An enterprise solution can provide departments and lab groups with efficiencies of administration (e.g. licensing and storage), training and cost, but would not be a required product.

A number of vendors offer ELN products. After we identify Pitt researchers’ requirements, we will evaluate vendors to determine the best fit for an enterprise solution. The selected product will need to address the University’s legal, regulatory, quality assurance, records management, collaboration and centralized reporting needs.

We have our work cut out for us.

What Pitt researchers want

Through discussion, surveys and focus groups, we know that important considerations are ease of use, flexibility and collaboration with internal and external colleagues. Researchers value access to their data at any time from anywhere. For some, the ability to collect data in the field or at the bench with a mobile device is a key consideration.

An effective ELN must allow researchers to detail their methods and techniques and capture results and discussion points. While it may seem obvious, the right ELN will take advantage of technology: backup, search and version-control will become much easier tasks.

More specifically, Pitt faculty want to be sure that an ELN can provide features that support their discipline’s research, whether that’s animal colony management, chemical/biological reagent inventories or immersion background for long-form nonfiction.

Change can be good

Lab groups and individual researchers or scholars are invested in productive workflows developed over the years or decades. Using an ELN makes sense when the ELN can enhance that workflow by automating common tasks, addressing “bumps in the road” or correcting trouble spots.

For example, are you having to manually sync up data, images, screen shots and notes from various devices into your current notebook? An effective ELN will do that for you. You can collect data or take notes out in the field with your iPad or other mobile device and have them automatically sync onto your central system.

The University Senate’s plenary session this fall looked at research data management as part of its discussion of institutional challenges and opportunities related to data. Electronic lab notebooks can be an important component of the University’s research infrastructure, particularly research data management, as research data can more easily be curated and stored when they are captured electronically.

Be part of the process

A good electronic lab notebook is a flexible tool that provides a secure environment to protect the integrity of data and the research process. During this academic year, we will evaluate vendors and identify an enterprise solution. Our goal is to be able to offer a supported ELN solution for Pitt researchers’ use in fall 2015.

If you have suggestions or concerns that CSSD should factor into our review of ELN products, please contact me at or 412/624-5244.

Jay Graham is an enterprise architect in CSSD, helping to make the most effective and strategic use of Pitt’s IT assets.