Transitioning to the Electronic Lab Notebook

How to replace paper lab notebook by an ELN in 5 steps

1 – User Requirement Specification

Before starting to look for an electronic lab notebook (ELN) solution, start by defining the scope of the solution your lab or organisation is looking for. Are you looking for an ELN for a single lab, a department or an entire organisation? How many scientists will be working with the system (now and in the future) and which disciplines or which workflows should be supported? Answering these questions is essential for the success of adoption of the ELN.

Once you defined the scope, define the requirements. In other words, what solution should the ELN offer to your organisation and what functionality is required to achieve that. Should the system only be replacing the paper lab notebook, or are you looking for a broader lab management software platform that also includes sample tracking, protocol management and resource planning. It is recommended to define the functional specification together with (a representative selection of) the end-users. Make sure to include end-users with different roles in the lab. Group leaders, lab managers and students usually consider different functionality to be important and the success of introducing a digital lab notebook highly depends on the wide acceptance among all end-users. When defining these requirements make sure to discriminate between “must have” and “nice to have” functionality, to make it easier to select ELNs based on these criteria.

Not only take into account functional requirements, but also consider requirements of the other stakeholders within the organisation. Particularly, when the scope is an organisation-wide ELN implementation, one of the important requirements to define is system hosting: cloud or on a local server. Although there are many advantages in terms accessibility and system maintenance in cloud solutions, many organisation policies dictate that confidential research data cannot be stored externally. Include the requirements of your IT department as well as the requirements of your Security Officer in the user requirement specification (URS). Finally, it is important to take funding into account. Will the cost for the ELN implementation be covered by a central budget provided by the organisation, are costs to be handled by the individual research groups separately, or a mix of both of the aforementioned options. In case costs are to be covered by the individual research groups, it will be important that the system includes an internal license reporting system so that costs can easily be charged pro rato to the research groups. For a URS template for the electronic lab notebook, please contact us.

2 – Market Survey

Once you have defined the URS of your lab or organisation, select potential ELN solutions or ELN vendors. Perform a basic screening of the various ELN solutions available. In many cases, scientists can provide some suggestions about preferred ELN solutions, but you can also find a comprehensive list of ELN vendors here. Many of the ELN vendors offer online tutorials, documentation, and manuals about their products as well as a free product trial and an introductory webinar. Make sure that all stakeholders are represented during this phase, to avoid setbacks at a later stage. Cross-check the URS with the features of the ELNs you are considering to shortlist and select the ELN systems that best fit your URS. At the end of this phase you should have selected 2-3 software solutions that match the closest with your organisation or lab requirements.

3 – Trial

To assess the functionality of the chosen ELN solutions, start with a trial. Most ELN vendors offer the option to do a free trial, but also discuss with the vendor which services they provide to facilitate and support a trial for your lab or organisation. Similar to defining the URS, make sure that the users participating in the trial are a representative group of users from different research groups but also includes users with different roles from within the same group. Also, make sure that the same group of users are testing all ELN systems for an equal comparison. In parallel to running a trial of the software, audit all non-functional requirements, such as:

  1. Security Audit – Assess vendor security policies and application security features and request relevant ISO certifications of the software vendors (such as ISO27001) and, in case of (private) cloud hosting, the certificates of the used data centers (ISO27001, ISEA3402 or SOC II).
  2. Technical Audit – Assess the system architecture both technically at the applicaton side. Especially when considering a locally hosted ELN system, inquire what IT resources are required for installation and maintenance. Is there an option to use the organisation login for authentication? Also, consider scalability of the application as some ELN system store files in the database and not on a separate file server which limits scalability options in the future.
  3. Implementation Services – Discuss which implementation services the vendor offers and how these fit with your organisations needs. Consider services like system installation, software maintenance and updates, data back-ups, key-user and end-user training modules and an escrow agreement.
  4. Quotation – Request price information about licensing, implementation, setup costs and support. When choosing for a local server installation, make sure to get a good understanding of internal costs of server hosting to make a fair comparison between prices of a cloud versus a local server installation.

4 – Evaluation

Once the trial has been completed, evaluate the outcome of the trial. Use the URS as the basis of the evaluation and have the end-users score the functionality that was defined in the first step. Also in the evaluation step, include the results of the technical audit, security audit, implementation services and pricing. Consolidate the outcome of the evaluation and discuss the outcome. Based on the outcome of the trial, the best solution should have become clear now. Considering the results from the evaluation, reach out to the ELN vendor of choice to discuss the evaluation, clarify all other information that is needed to be able to make a decision and request a final quote. Keep the participants of the trial informed during this process to keep them engaged.

5 – Get started and replace the paper lab notebook

After signing of the formal agreement, implementation of the ELN within your organisation can be started. This typically starts with the technical installation of the system and the assignment of system key-users within the organisation. From there the implementation is typically executed as agreed with your ELN vendor.

In case your organisation is ready to transition to the electronic lab notebook, we are here to help you.

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