ELNs in Academia

The commercial ELN industry is well into its second decade, and although the market penetration is still relatively low, a number of organisations , mainly in the Life Sciences sector, are leading the way in replacing paper lab notebooks with ELNs.  There are plenty of case studies that justify the transition and which report quantitative benefits in productivity, improvements in IP protection, and numerous unquantifiable personal productivity gains, mainly around sharing and collaboration.

The situation in academia is interesting; although the principles of the scientific method are the same for industry and academia, there are practical circumstances that can lead to differences in requirements.  In a very basic sense, the objective in industry is to utilise experimentation for the benefit of the organisation in the development of new or improved products or services.  In academia, the objective is to expand the knowledgebase of science, but being realistic, this is often for the benefit of the individual scientists or team (to secure further funding, enhance one’s reputation, improve employment prospects, etc.)  Increasing concerns within academia about (a) good record keeping (to facilitate further funding), (b) the value of intellectual property and (c) about exploiting collaborative opportunities with industry, may now lead to a greater requirement to utilise information technology to document and maintain records of laboratory experimentation.

The current take up of ELNs in academia is fragmented, and is comprised of relatively small teams of scientists, traditionally working in a more isolated fashion, and using

a wide range of tools (home made, blogs, note-taking tools, and in some cases, commercial ELNs).  The decision to convert to an ELN is therefore often based on the requirements of a small team, or in some cases, of an individual.   Nevertheless, there seems to be a growing level of interest in the use of ELNs in academia, and here are a few links that make interesting reading.

An article by Jim Giles appeared in Nature in January: Going Paperless: The Digital Lab, which takes a broad view of creating a ‘digital’ lab, not necessarily restricted to

academia, but the comments below the article emphasise a number of concerns about the transition from paper to electronic.  In a similar vein, an item by Tom Phillips (Imperial College, London), the Death of my Paper Lab Book?, also covers a number of specific concerns, and the commitment to start using a Wiki- based solution.  An example of  Mediawiki, and iPads, being used as a Lab Notebook appeared in an interview, posed on a University of Melbourne website, with Dr Shelley Wickham of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School.  The use of a commercial ELN in Cambridge University’s Chemistry Department is being tracked on the cameln blog, but perhaps the most ambitious project is ‘Towards a National ELN’ a sub-project of the EPSRC funded Dial-a-Molecule programme in the UK.

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