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A flexible Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) with Microsoft OneNote

Implementing a free electronic lab-notebook for improved research documentation, collaboration, and lab-meetings.


Summary


Have you ever wondered why you generate most data electronically but then print and glue your results into a paper lab notebook?
We have implemented a free, compliant, flexible, and easy to use electronic lab notebook based on Microsoft OneNote.
This has facilitated collaboration, reduced time for documentation, and improved the quality of and ease of access to lab notes.

The implementation was facilitated by support from our legal and IT department.
The necessary infrastructure is a file server (preferably SharePoint) or network assisted storage with rights management, a backup solution, an electronic signature for each user, and software to export and digitally sign PDFs.
The setup is as follows: one common lab notebook with folders for content (background information, best practice, reports), collaboration, and templates and one lab notebook for each scientist and technician (full access for owner and group-leader, read access for everyone in the lab).
The workflow includes: daily documentation and monthly export to pdf by each lab-member (with digital signature by the lab-member, digital signature by the group leader, timestamp from an independent timeserver).
If you have patent relevant information, you might want to keep a backup paper lab-notebook for select experiments that document your prior art the old-fashioned way.

Main advantages of this implementation are ease of use, automated backup, cross-referencing (within and between lab notebooks, external files, and folders), navigation / search function, and possibility to pack an go when users leave the lab.

We have used the electronic lab-notebook exclusively since January 2013 and would never go back.

Figure 1: We are almost paperless since 2013.

Background

Lab-notebooks go back at least to the middle ages, when Da Vinci (1452-1519) spent hours drawing human anatomy and his inventions. Isaac Newton (1643-1727) deliberately complicated his notes with riddles and awkward phrasing of his thoughts to hide the meaning from anyone that he deemed not intellectually worthy of their content.
Today most scientists do not have as much fun documenting their work - in part because excessive amounts of data is acquired and processed, methods are more complex, and because users have to integrate diverse needs of institutions, funding agencies, and patent offices for "proper" documentation of their lab-results.

Our transition to an electronic lab-notebook (ELN) was prompted by the need to facilitate documentation of mostly electronic data, reference to electronic documents, and the transition of scientists to other labs.  We now use OneNote as a replacement for the paper lab notebook, where the structure (organized by year/month/week/day) facilitates transition from paper documentation for scientists and technicians, including those new to the lab. The ELN is used by all group members - scientists, technicians, trainees, and guests.

The Problem:

We all have to document our work – following good scientific practice. This leads to an accumulation of paper that is hard to track and makes it difficult to retrieve information (your own and especially that from others). Adding to the problem is that the overwhelming majority of data acquired is electronic so that paper lab-notebooks do not integrate well with lab workflows. The perceived value of keeping a classical lab-notebook is low as it is a one-trick-pony: its only use is to document your progress in case a journal, funding agency, or legal entity needs access (usually in an unpleasant situation such as a patent dispute, potential fraud, or misappropriation of funds).
As a result, most scientists do not enjoy documenting their work - especially with classical paper lab-notebooks.

The Solution:

We were aiming for a lab-book that helps save time, organize our work, and find critical information (and does not get lost).
We wanted an electronic lab-notebook that facilitates experimental planning, allows us to link diverse types of data, can be integrated into a workflow, and that produces a legally binding document. Preferably it should be compatible with Windows to use existing hardware: desktops in lab and office - and cheap portable devices for the lab that support access to shared folders with rights management (Windows Tablets).

Table 1: Priorities for an electronic lab notebook
Time:
Learning curve
Efficient documentation (templates for structure and content)
Elimination of paper (avoid duplication for lab procedure)
Flexibility:
Accommodation of existing data (AI, Photoshop, Excel, GraphPad prism; linking large sets of raw data)
Portability
Access from multiple computers by multiple users
Easy to move (working from home, leaving the lab)
Cost:
Free or available software
Existing hardware or cheap hardware add-on

After a bit of research and testing multiple pieces of software available, we decided on Microsoft OneNote (maybe the most overlooked piece of software as part of the Office package). It works like a paper notebook – you can type or write anywhere (pen input available) and your notes are automatically saved. It provides the possibility to format, search, copy-paste, and link diverse types of information.
As a plus - it runs on existing hardware (including cheap tablets with windows 7, 8, 10, or windows RT).


Figure 2: The electronic lab-notebook running on Windows RT on Microsoft Surface tablets.
While OneNote was the perfect solution for documentation as needed by the scientist, we were still in need of a workflow that would produce a file that could be digitally signed and not be edited in post, which we implemented with "Print to PDF"-function and electronic signatures (followed by automated export to permanent storage). Your IT-support can probably help you with obtaining an electronic signature and to set up a script to move your signed PDF ELNs to a read-only area for permanent storage.


Alternatives:

Two examples of commercially available electronic lab-notebooks are Lab Archives and Sparklix. As they provide a specialized service they have to charge a significant amount of money. For cloud based services (such as Sparklix) users might wonder who controls their data. If you don't mind sharing, you should also take a look at openwetware for protocols and lab notebooks.
If you want an alternative software solutions to our implementation of OneNote that better integrates other operating systems you can always check alternativeto.net.

 

Workflow:

To reduce redundancy and produce compatible output, we provide templates for each month (available on request). The secretary produces templates with the generic layout (monthly cover page, week pages, and one page per day) for the upcoming 3 months. For the experimentalist, we set up templates per method for cut and paste and calculators for pipetting schemes. Thus, it is easier to document before the experiment starts and just check-of or add information after the bench-work is complete. If you like, you can have the group-leader, lab manager, or a senior postdoc oversee the monthly export and IT can facilitate proper filing and backup. At our institution we have each experimentalist and groupleader obtain an electronic signature and sign the ELN content of the previous month exported as a pdf. before the first Friday everybody prepared the signed pdf, the groupleader co-signs by the second Friday of the month and inserts a timestamp. At the end of the second Friday of the month, the IT runs a script that moves the signed pdf to a location where it cannot be altered of deleted with read-only acces by the members of the lab.

Table 2: ELN workflow
Scientist/Technician:
Daily: maintain lab-notebook
Every Monday: Update past week's lab-notebook if needed, plan upcoming week
1st Monday of the Month - revisit past month's lab-notebook, Export PDF to the server L:\Monthly and sign electronically
Groupleader:
before 2nd Friday of the month, check ELN, datestamp / sign / lock PDF (2nd Friday at 23:59 automated backup by the IT department)
IT:
2nd Friday of the month, backup PDF to the server P:\year\yyyy-mm\


Implementation:

After using OneNote for informal notes since >10 years, we have set up OneNote as an electronic lab notebook (ELN) in October 2012 with a 3 month grace period and transitioned everybody in the lab to electronic only documentation in January 2013. Since then we did not have a single hiccup.

Setup OneNote Lab-Book

Month / week / date structure, one tab per year, one lab-book per person + one joint lab-book per group

Infrastructure remote:

Group directory mapped to L: (with one subfolder for each user and one common folder for the lab and an export folder that contains the pdf documents exported monthly).
Backup directory mapped to P: (where last month's pdfs are transferred automatically with read access only.

To get you a rough idea on the amount of storage needed - we use almost 4 GB per year for 15 electronic Lab-Notebooks and one Group Lab-Book. The exported pdfs run at 200 MB per year with 15 electronic Lab-Notebooks.

Obtain electronic signatures and setup timestamp-server in Adobe Acrobat (or your PDF writer of choice). At our institution employees have access to a free digital signature. If your institution or company does not have digital signature workflows implemented, you can find alternatives online.

The only potential drawback was rights management issues with the Mac version of OneNote and lack of support for linux, although there are various workarounds (separate tablets running windows, a virtual machine that linux or mac users log into, dual boot).

Notes:

If you need support - we have considerable experience with role-out and suggestions for hardware. Please inquire for an ELN template. If you have worked with Evernote and would like to transition, there is a OneNote Importer Tool that will migrate all of your Evernote content into OneNote for free.


tl;dr

OneNote provides a free and flexible way to document and organize your lab work.

Rights management keeps it protected (write access for the owner and group leader, read access for all lab members). Links facilitate cooperation and referral to earlier experiments and reagents, as well as lab-meetings.

8 comments:

  1. Your blog is very informative and gracefully ELN Software

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  2. Would it be possible to get a copy of the ELN template? I've been wanting to use my Surface Pro 3 for that purpose and would like to try it out. Many thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Jim,
      Thank you for your interest - please email me for details.
      Best,
      Mitch

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  3. Would it be possible to get some additional details about your template?

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    Replies
    1. Dear Keith,
      the template provides a basic hierarchical structure (month / week / day). The Month is preconfigured to hold the monthly summary, the week to hold the weekly plan / todo list and each day is one page of flexible length for documentation. Multiple templates for different methods are available to copy/paste into the daily documentation.
      Please email me, if you need additional information.
      Best,
      Mitch

      Delete
    2. Hey I want to know some further information about the topic about - what is your email where I can find you?

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    3. My email is included in the "Impressum" and "Legal Information". You can catch me at michael.gotthardt@mail.com (I tend to respond in batch to the ELN-requests about once a week)...

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  4. The Flexible Electronic lab images are looking great in your post, I liked it. prototype pcb assembly

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