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February 18, 2016

Technology Corner: Ditching paper for digital

tech corner

In 1985, Howard Kanare closed his “Writing a Laboratory Notebook” with a musing on “the many hopes and many questions” involved in considering the possibility of an electronic lab notebook, noting somewhat wistfully the portability problem of an electronic lab notebook, since “most computers are not portable.”

Thirty years later, computers are eminently portable and electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) increasingly common. Today’s ELN is more than a digital version of a paper lab notebook. Using an ELN, researchers and scholars can document both traditional and digital assets, store searchable notes, share notebooks with others and save almost anything — not just numbers, text and sketches — electronically.

The LabArchives ELN will be available to the University community this term.

Why move to ELNs?

Electronic lab notebooks like LabArchives capture and store various kinds of research data in one common system. They provide advantages over paper notebooks: simplified backup/copy; easy keyword searches; greater security; collaboration support; direct incorporation of data from instrumentation.

What’s the primary reason researchers consider moving to an ELN? Reducing the time they spend searching for data, equations or images in paper lab notebooks. One study estimated that use of an ELN cut search time in half.

A number of researchers and research groups at Pitt have begun using ELNs. In the past year, CSSD has surveyed Pitt researchers to gather information on what features researchers wanted, what concerns they had and what experiences informed their considerations. We then worked with University faculty, research administrators and department-based technology staff to identify requirements for a cross-disciplinary ELN product that could be centrally supported as an enterprise service freely available to all University researchers, including students.

Faculty made it clear that they want an ELN product that is easy to use, flexible and accessible. Lab groups and individual researchers or scholars are invested in productive workflows developed over years or decades. Using an ELN makes sense only if it can enhance — not change — researchers’ existing workflow by automating common tasks or fixing process trouble spots.

Additionally, we were reminded that research data management is part of the University’s ongoing discussion of institutional challenges and opportunities related to data. We recognize that adoption of an enterprise ELN product like LabArchives can be an important component of research data management, as research data can more easily be curated and stored.

Why LabArchives?

Taking into consideration that feedback, surveying ELNs currently in use at Pitt and working closely with the Office of Research and a group of Pitt researchers, we identified LabArchives as Pitt’s choice for an enterprise ELN.

Several departments at Pitt had been using LabArchives with individual licenses; now, they no longer need to pay for an individual subscription. Other universities that have adopted LabArchives include the University of Wisconsin, Cornell, Yale, Tufts and the University of Sydney.

Seventeen Pitt research areas participated in a proof-of-concept trial of LabArchives. During the proof-of-concept period, users here noted their appreciation for the product’s flexibility. LabArchives integrates with Microsoft Office (Windows), Google Docs, ChemDoodle, PubMed and GraphPad Prism. Widgets — customizable and interactive apps — can be tailored to specific experiments. Mobile versions for Android and iOS devices can be downloaded at

Getting started

To use LabArchives when it becomes available, you will log in to and follow the Electronic Lab Notebook link that will be in the right column. Each LabArchives at Pitt account will have unlimited storage.

LabArchives at Pitt will include both the professional and classroom editions. With the classroom edition, instructors will be able to manage, monitor and evaluate students’ lab work. Primary investigators will be able to access all data and add comments to lab members’ ELNs from any device at any time.

Researchers who have misplaced paper lab notebooks in the past can rest easy that their ELN will be available to them wherever they are without having to be physically carried from one place to another; this ELN is cloud-based. Access to ELNs, however, will depend on the ability to connect to the Internet. As part of all researchers’ backup strategy for their work, we recommend that researchers periodically export and archive their notebooks in a digital location available to them when they are offline.

A range of help resources will be available at for people who want to learn more about using LabArchives. In addition, free webinars will be scheduled next month; registration information will be posted at

A good ELN is a flexible tool that provides a secure environment to protect the integrity of data and the research process. LabArchives addresses the University’s legal, regulatory (including export control), quality assurance, records management, collaboration and centralized reporting needs. CSSD is looking forward to offering this service to the University research community.

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

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