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An Electronic Research Notebook (ERN) is a software system for documenting your research work. In its most basic form, it can simply offer an interface similar to that of a word processor. This replicates the way a paper notebook is currently used, but with additional advantages such as sharing, searching, password protection and backup.

Many ERN packages also offer a host of other functions, such as data management, collaboration, integration with other software, laboratory information management (LIMS) and many more. However, the complexity of these products and their different designs and feature sets, as well as the level of commitment they demand, can make it difficult to choose a product. ERNs are also sometimes referred to as electronic laboratory notebooks or ELNs, but their use need not be limited to a laboratory environment, as they are useful for recording research notes across disciplines.

A note on documentation systems

Many individuals and groups are successfully using combinations of readily available and well-established productivity tools (e.g., Evernote, OneNote, Dropbox, OneDrive) to operate systems that provide most of the basic features of a “real” electronic notebook. It is an attractive, inexpensive, accessible and low-impact option that uses software tools that are already familiar to most users. However, it requires a disciplined and well-organized approach, and since products are not designed with ERN applications in mind, users should be aware of the risk of disruption caused by unfriendly software updates.

Free ERN products

Most commercial ERN providers offer a free cloud-based service for individual or academic use. This may seem tempting and a light way to experiment with an ERN product, but be careful: most users end up being incentivized to upgrade to a paid plan, for performance reasons or to increase storage capacity.

ERN vs. LIMS

A laboratory information management system (LIMS) is a database system for managing a laboratory’s research resources (e.g., freezer and sample stocks, reagents, etc.), which often includes procurement and ordering functions. Its basic function is therefore different from that of an Electronic Research Notebook, but it is not uncommon for functions to overlap in areas such as protocol management, for example.

Many ERN products have started their journey and have been developed as an integral part of a LIMS, to later become a standalone product, and in some cases the heritage of LIMS is still evident in the complex interface of the ERN, much like a database. If you’re drawn to the functionality of a LIMS in addition to an ERN, carefully consider whether you prefer the convenience of a single, large, complex, all-round product, or a couple of products that can offer a clearer approach and more streamlined interfaces.

Notes vs. Data

Electronic research notebooks should be used in the way that best suits you and your research, following best practice guidelines. If you are generating new data, you should consider whether your notebook is the best place to store this data or whether it should be used exclusively for notes and observations on the data. Many researchers consider that notebooks are not suitable for storing their data because the files are too large, too numerous, or cannot be opened directly in the notebook.

Instead, they save the data files elsewhere, such as a department server, and link them from the notebook. If you link to files, you have to be careful with using hyperlinks: this will only work as long as the files remain in their original locations.

The Electronic Research Notebook and your data

Some suggested strategies to create connections between your notebook and your data are:

Copy the file name into the notebook along with the metadata information, such as the date the data was created, who generated it, what type of file it is.

Copy the directory structure of the files into the notebook. This is useful because even if the data is moved from the active top-level folder to a file folder, the root underneath should remain the same and therefore the file can be found even if it costs a bit of searching. For example, the file structure might start as

C:\Documents\Project Name\Folder Name\File Name

And later be archived so the structure of the file becomes

c:\archived\project name\folder name\file name

The bold part has remained the same, which will help you find the file.

Use a good convention to name the files and make sure the file name is in the notebook. This will make it easier to find information if you don’t remember where the file is located.

Specialized tools

Specialized tools can be crucial to your research and their availability in notebooks may not be standard. Functions such as special characters, drawing or timestamping can be important for the recording of your work. If the tools or functions are not available in the notebook, it may be possible to integrate them with another tool, for example, through an API.

Trusted features

The integrity of the research and the ability to demonstrate it can be very important in your work. Some notebooks have functions that allow you to choose the types of access that individuals have (for example, “read-only” or “read and write”). You may need a notebook with a good edit history or a way to track when changes were made and by whom. You may need a notebook that allows you to “lock” pages to prevent them from being further edited. Consider whether any of these features are important to your work.

Collaboration features

Access controls to your notebook, especially if you work in a research group, can be very important. You may want to share only specific sections of your notebook with certain people and this capability may not be present in all notebooks. If you’re the leader of a group, you may want to be able to set up new notebooks for certain group members or shared notebooks for everyone. Having clear functions that allow you to do this could reduce the administrative task associated with it. You may also need to consider how access to notebooks can be given to people outside your group; for example, will they have to create an account with the notebook provider or would you better export the relevant information and send it to them?

Interoperability

Interoperability between your notebook and other systems you use can be key to a seamless experience that enhances the research process. Ideally, all the work you do should be carried out in open source formats, that is, file types that can be opened by a number of different programs, since proprietary formats that depend on a specific program can pose a problem for others trying to open the files. If you have no choice but to use proprietary software in your research, check how the notebook would treat this type of file or the information it contains. You should also know in which formats you can take the information or data out of the notebook and whether they are proprietary or open source.

Open Data Functionality

Some notebook providers may offer additional functionality that allows you to practice open research seamlessly. For example, some notebooks integrate with repositories so you can easily create a public version of a section of your notebook that may be necessary for reproducibility and that you want to share.

Storage and security

Cloud or on-premises server

Most providers are now leaning towards a cloud service rather than installing an on-premises server, and for most users the benefits of this approach outweigh the concerns. The cloud option requires no on-premises infrastructure or support; no need to worry about updates; privacy standards are usually very high; and GDPR compliance (if required) can be achieved using Amazon storage – it’s a good choice for individuals and research groups. For enterprise deployment, where integration with on-premises systems (for example, authentication) may be required, a local ERN server may be more appropriate.

Backups

As with any piece of digital information, work in an electronic notebook should be backed up to minimize any potential risk of data loss. The notebook software platform provider is very likely to perform automatic backups; however, you should not assume that these are produced or suitable for your work. If they aren’t, you should consider implementing a backup strategy that suits your needs, as you would with your personal laptop.

The frequency of backups is an aspect to consider. How often are snapshots taken from the laptop? How much work could you lose if the laptop platform broke down? Some platforms take snapshots every few minutes, which means very little data is lost, while others can take a snapshot once a day.

Another aspect to take into account is the time that the backups are preserved. Some platforms can store the backups for a year or more, allowing you to find older versions of your work if you need to. Others may find this unnecessary.

Data Security

The location of the information contained in your notebook, as well as that of the backups, can be of utmost importance in your research. You need to find out where your data is physically stored, that is, where the server used by the platform provider is located. If your job must meet the requirements of the GDPR (i.e. you work with personal or sensitive information) or you have to save your information under certain conditions (for example, your industrial partner requires a certain level of security), then it is vital that you understand the security aspects of your laptop.

All researchers using a laptop should read the terms and conditions of use of the chosen platform to ensure that they are satisfied with the way the platform handles and accesses their data.

Data retention

Data backup and retention are not necessarily the same thing. While the laptop platform can back up your data according to a defined schedule, it can also keep copies of your data even after you’ve deleted it from the platform. This is especially important if there are restrictions on how long the data can be retained; for example, you may have an agreement with another data provider or interviewees to keep their data only for a defined period.

For all research-related information, you should also consider how long you will need to keep it after your project is over. Some funders require data retention and the University has good practice guidelines for preserving research-related records. You can decide to keep the information in the notebook, but consider whether your access to the platform matches the retention schedule and whether keeping the “old” information there will take up too much storage space.

Costs

Many notebook options are free, but there are paid options if more features or space are needed. A payment option may be a good idea for some researchers or groups, but you will need to carefully consider how it will be paid. Not all funders will support the costs associated with subscribing to a notebook. Ideally, notebook subscriptions should be made through the University’s purchasing system, and your department should be able to help you in this regard.

Utility and user support

The amount of support available and the ease of use of the platforms vary and can make a big difference in the effectiveness of using the chosen laptop. Many platforms offer a knowledge base with help guides, video tutorials, or provide support through online chats or email. The ease of use of laptops, without the need for support, varies between platforms and also between users, so you have to take into account if you feel comfortable browsing new products or looking for help. You also have to consider how much time you have to invest in learning how to use a product, as this is known to be a barrier to the successful adoption of an electronic notebook.

Duration of the platform

A custom-made notebook with features specifically aimed at your discipline may seem like an ideal solution, but you should keep in mind that there are no guarantees that the platforms will exist in the long term. Well-established companies or products may offer longevity guarantees (although they are not immune to being discontinued or running out of support in the future), while there may be more uncertainty around newer products. It may be a risk you’re willing to live with, but it’s very important that you know what your options are for pulling out your data if the platform stops working in the future.

Future-proof

Try to consider the future when selecting a product: in particular, what its future needs might be and how likely the platform is to respond to technological changes or the needs of users. This applies not only to new features, but also to general platform updates and bug fixes. The performance of your platform can have a big impact on your user experience.

Which ERN would be best for me/my group?

A few basic questions can help you define your needs and filter out the options:

Do you have a budget?

Decide how much you would like to spend. If you find a product that suits you and your team, and you intend to rely on that service to securely store all of your research documentation, for years, it’s probably worth paying a reasonable price. See also the note on ERN free products above.

Will you use this software independently or as a group?

There are some very useful, self-contained and cheap packages for individual users who don’t need all the bells and whistles of a complete ERN system.

Do you want to deploy it at the departmental or institutional level?

If the implementation of a single product throughout the center is essential, you will have to recognize that, unfortunately, you will not be able to please everyone. Instead of striving to offer the most comprehensive feature set possible, your institution may be better served with a basic set of “essential” functions that are more universally relevant.

What operating systems will be used?

Most ERN products are browser-based and therefore operating system-independent, but, as with many other complex online services, they may not be fully compatible with ALL browsers. There are some platform-specific applications on the market, which could be of interest, or could be quickly excluded from your search.

What devices will be used to manage the ERN software?

Many people need to create or update “live” records in the bank or in other experimental areas, as well as on other devices inside and outside the lab. Others may prefer to use speech recognition tools, or to keep doodling handwritten notes and then transcribing them into a more orderly and organized register on a single computer. Please note that some vendors may charge additional fees for applications to run their software on different types of devices.

Do your funding agreements require specific data security/compliance measures?

Some funding bodies require that all data be stored securely, in a geographical location that ensures compliance with local data protection regulations (e.g. the GDPR). However, some ERN systems are designed to store content and data solely on their own servers (i.e. in “the cloud”). Large groups/departments may negotiate local facilities as they fully comply with the regulations, but if you are a small group without sufficient bargaining power, you may need to seek guidance/approval from your funding body, or restrict your choice of ERN products to those that allow local storage.

Product Evaluation

When experimenting with the software, keep in mind the following list of functions and features.

Interface design

Do you like the “look” of the software? Is it easy and intuitive to use? Does it seem efficient and well designed?

Workflow adequacy

Does the software allow you to describe your usual working methods well? Does it suit your experiments?

Content creation tools

Try all writing and drawing tools, annotation features, etc. Does the software support markup language, mathematical equations, chemical structures, etc.?

Data management/storage

Can you upload files of the usual type/format/size? If there is a file size limit, how are larger files managed? Can multiple files be uploaded at the same time? Do you like how the software stores/presents the catalog of uploaded files? Do you think that the handling of the files is fast enough? How do I back up my data?

Integration with other online programs and/or services

Some ERN products offer integration with Office applications, statistical software, institutional storage, data repositories, etc. Do you find these features well-designed and useful?

Collaboration functions. Can you share resources/comments with members of your group? Can you invite people outside your group to see or contribute to your ERN?

IP/supervisor functions. Does the platform provide adequate monitoring of your group’s activities and tools for you to give feedback? Can you control the levels of access to resources for members of your group?

Export functions. Can you export pages, sections, or the entire notebook in a useful format? Can you export in a way that returns the data files in their original formats?

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Electronic Research Notebook

Electronic Research Notebook. Photo: Unsplash. Credits: John Schnobrich

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