Science needs ELNs: how to know what you have and how to use it – part two

Science needs ELNs: how to know what you have and how to use it – part two

Most of us are creatures of habit and the world of research and development (R&D) is no different. In my last blog I talked about how the historical practice of using paper laboratory notebooks to record experimental work had been productive but was now unfit for purpose. In today’s interconnected digital world, we demand information at our fingertips in both our work and social lives.

Paper is a passive storage and archiving medium whereas electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) truly enhance the science and research by streamlining data capture and storage processes. They help the user but they also provide a searchable and mineable archive with that all important chronological context. Furthermore, a data-centric ELN provides the foundation on which scientists and engineers can innovate faster and better. They hold not just a narrative and picture of the data, but a structure that means data has true meaning and context. It can be searched, aggregated and reused.

Information recorded and stored with full context within ELNs means it can be effectively aggregated and assimilated to help create new data sets which can be analyzed and used for innovations, reporting and decision making purposes. ELNs really do free up researchers’ valuable time. We have proven many times that simple paper replacement can save users 2-8 hours per week but a true lab data management system also increases throughput and efficiency.

Although many scientists still prefer to retain control and visibility over their work, good ELNs support this by providing flexible access controls. At an organizational level, ELNs’ effective searching and reporting mechanisms completely remove the need for experiments to be refactored into slides, documents and reports – meetings are based around looking at the ELN records in real time. An unforeseen benefit is that the act of sharing data with colleagues can sometimes serve to push up the quality of experiment write-ups too.

And then came the smartphone! Today’s mobile generation has embraced ELNs as the optimum way to work effectively and collaborate. Social media is increasingly viewed as a business tool and social norms such as tagging, commenting and easy ‘sharing’ are being adopted to facilitate discussions and gain valuable insights among peer groups. Such trends are pushing the boundaries of ELN technology as scientists and engineers move to work seamlessly, whether at their desks, benches, in the field or at home.

Good R&D is all about pushing barriers and exploring, repurposing and reformulating existing innovations and collaborating with others. ELNs are a genuine catalyst for transformational change within R&D organizations because they hit the business drivers that everyone faces – improving efficiency, lowering margins and fully leveraging innovation to maximize investments. We scientists and engineers may be creatures of habit but some habits are definitely worth breaking when the benefits are so clear and readily available.