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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2014

There's an App for That

Electronic Lab Notebooks: Supporting Laboratory Data in the Digital Era

Kristin Bogdan
Data Librarian, Center for Science and Social Science Information

Themba Flowers
Manager, ITS Research Technologies and Co-Director of the Center for Science and Social Science Information

Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut


Yale University researchers, departments and labs have been using laboratory notebooks, paper or electronic, for years without formal institutional guidance. In this column, we describe how Yale University Library (YUL) and Information Technology Services (ITS) partnered to introduce a service providing institutional support for electronic lab notebooks (ELNs). This new service is offered within a suite of YUL data management services as well as within ITS' research technologies. This column looks at the process involved in choosing a product, describes support considerations, and discusses alternative steps we might have taken. It does not discuss cost issues, nor should it be considered an endorsement of any particular product or vendor.

What are ELNs?

Electronic lab notebooks are software products that aim to replace the functions normally served by traditional paper laboratory notebooks. In many disciplines, these notebooks are the record of a particular researcher's experimental data, daily laboratory activities, progress on publications, interactions with colleagues, and presentations given. They are not taken lightly, and there are typically guidelines that the researcher is expected to follow with regards to dating and signing pages, fixing errors, and keeping the notebook intact. Notebooks can be especially important if the research recorded therein leads to a patent or if there is any question about the validity of a particular study.

As important as paper laboratory notebooks have been for research, ELNs have the potential to be as important and lead to better scholarship. Paper notebooks cannot be searched; they can catch fire, get wet, or be lost; data is transcribed manually, decreasing accuracy; comparisons between pages or notebooks can be problematic if not impossible; certification methods of who did what (and when) varies between disciplines; and sheets of paper aren't sufficient for modern experiments which can generate massive amounts of data. Yale began investigating a university-wide electronic lab notebook solution to address many of these issues.

ELNs at Yale

Yale's consideration of ELNs coincided with significant changes to the University's landscape: the hiring of a new University Librarian and a new Chief Information Officer (CIO), and the creation of a Center for Science and Social Science Information (CSSSI). The CSSSI program mission called for integrated services delivery between ITS and the Library with an emphasis on data support and resources for collaborative learning. The new CIO began his tenure by interviewing faculty members and conducting focus groups to learn more about teaching, learning, and research needs. The new University Librarian brought a high level of awareness and understanding of research data management, especially at the national policy and compliance level. Together, these changes resulted in a "perfect timing" scenario to address and explore ELNs as one solution to the emerging concerns.

Since feedback revealed that researchers needed better support for laboratory data, particularly in the sciences, ELNs were an obvious first effort. (It should be noted that we also reviewed other solutions including Laboratory Inventory Management Systems (LIMS), data management planning for grants, and survey tools.) ITS conducted interviews with researchers to determine requirements for an institutional ELN offering. LabArchives was chosen primarily because of its cloud-based option, cross-discipline flexibility, and cross-platform accessibility. (Other criteria include mobile access, annotation and stylus support, back-up architecture and data permanence, direct links to instrumentation output, data analysis and visualization tools, chemical drawing, cytometry, search capability, filetype support, offline entry with sync, data export, auditing capabilities, protocol handling, drag-and-drop support, storage capacity, and CAS/Shibboleth integration.) YUL was invited to participate in supporting ELNs as data management tools. Within the Library, support for ELNs is provided by the two Data Librarians in the CSSSI as part of their broader data management responsibilities. Subject specialist librarians also play a key role in promoting ELN offerings to their constituencies and providing insight into the kinds of features that researchers in their disciplines require.

When LabArchives was introduced to the Yale community, it was important to gather as much information as possible about how and by whom it would be used. We needed to ensure that new users were aware that LabArchives was not HIPAA compliant at Yale, and that they agreed not to use it for anything that could require special security considerations. We also wanted to communicate directly with users before they created an account about getting access on and off campus, finding help online and, most importantly, to offer a demonstration or consultation if they wanted more information.

Yale has chosen to use its institutional identity management system (Central Authentication Service, or CAS) to manage access to LabArchives. This allows us to ensure that everyone who has a Yale University Edition account is actually a member of the Yale community. It is also more convenient for our users, as it means that they can use their pre-existing credentials to access their ELN. The university-negotiated license includes more storage and an optional classroom version of the software. Users can access their account from any location that has an internet connection without being on the Yale network or the VPN. In the notebook, "Yale University Edition" appears immediately below the LabArchives logo so users know that they are in the Yale-sponsored version of the software.

ELN-specific services currently offered include product demonstrations for individuals and labs, technical assistance, and consultation on the best way to set up and integrate LabArchives into current workflows. Demonstrations provide a way to get immediate feedback about LabArchives, which we then pass on to the vendor. We also use this as an opportunity to gather information about what researchers need from an ELN and the other data management services researchers might require. ELNs are not meant to be complete solutions for research data management. Determining how they integrate with other systems and where there might be gaps has been an important part of creating a package of complementary services.

A large part of the support effort has been documenting best practices for using ELNs in general and LabArchives specifically. Since ELNs are supported by both Yale University Library and Information Technology Services, the documentation exists in both Library and ITS systems. A LibGuide provides basic information about getting access and getting started with ELNs, with links out to the more robust ITS Service Page. The Service Page ties ELNs into the other research services provided by ITS. The technical information, such as FAQs and known issues, are found on these pages so that they are readily available to ITS staff that might receive questions about LabArchives. Articles are also created in the ITS service management system, ServiceNow, so that they can be tied to any problems that may arise. These how-to articles are also made publicly available.


Evaluating use has been challenging, as it is difficult to determine uptake of the ELN by a normal set of metrics. Approximately 350 unique accounts have been created in the Yale University Edition of LabArchives, however many of those accounts have not been used since they were created. While we can get information about how much storage space has been used, we don't know how many people are creating those data. We recently conducted a survey that, in conjunction with the feedback we received during demonstrations and consultations, will provide a clearer picture of ELN use at Yale and how to improve our users' experience of them.

An early concern in developing this service was the differentiation between the service and the specific product. LabArchives is currently the only ELN officially supported at Yale, so there is no differentiation between LabArchives and ELNs as a broader service. As we continue to evaluate the ELN needs across different disciplines, we anticipate providing support for more than one product to accommodate discipline-specific expectations. Subject specialists will play a key role in discussing discipline specific ELNs and integration of additional resources. It has become clear, especially in disciplines that have mature ELN offerings with well-developed integration into research communities (particularly Chemistry, Biology and Medicine), that choosing an ELN requires an understanding of the data ecosystem in which researchers work on a daily basis.

An important consideration when choosing and promoting an ELN is how to involve other relevant organizations across your institution. ELNs will be of interest to the group that manages grants and contracts, as they could be an option for fulfilling data management plan requirements. It is essential that the office in charge of monetizing research also be involved, as record keeping will be important in patent discussions. At Yale, we have also involved Environmental Health and Safety, as they provide essential services including a chemical inventory system to researchers across campus that could be integrated with an ELN. These groups can provide input on requirements as well as assistance with promotion and instruction.


Moving forward, we plan to expand the ELN service at Yale in two primary ways: by providing assistance with ELNs from other vendors, and through additional documentation for LabArchives in partnership with library staff at Cornell University. It is likely that investigation of new ELNs will be an ongoing process, as some vendors will disappear while others will increase their offerings and become less discipline specific. This evolution will require plans for migrating users if a chosen system fails or becomes obsolete, which could require extra staff time to assist in moving data and documents from one system to another. Researchers invest time and energy setting up notebooks to maximize the productivity and efficiency of their labs, so any product change should be accompanied by sufficient planning. We will continue to promote LabArchives with extra documentation and continued technical and data management assistance. As more institutions acquire site licenses for LabArchives, we hope to work together, as we have with Cornell, to support each other and our user communities.

With electronic lab notebooks, one solution will not meet the needs of all of constituents. The landscape of vendors is constantly changing, and, while most offer interesting features, they do not all offer the features that specialized researchers need. ELNs do not need to be universally adopted to be a success; they should be considered within a support framework for multiple plaftorms and services.

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