Electronic Lab Notebooks: Free ELN options
Electronic lab notebooks are a digital platform for organizing and saving research records. Researchers can use them in place of or in addition to hardcopy notebooks. This guide is intended to provide information about advantages and pitfalls of differe
Microsoft OneNote is available to all students and employees of Oklahoma State University as part of the Office 365 suite of tools. It is cloud based and can be accessed from any connected device and is interoperable with other Microsoft products such as OneDrive, Excel and Word. Records are searchable, making it easy to locate past experiments or related information.
The information here is adapted from: Guerrero S, López-Cortés A, García-Cárdenas JM, Saa P, Indacochea A, Armendáriz-Castillo I, et al. (2019) A quick guide for using Microsoft OneNote as an electronic laboratory notebook. PLoS Comput Biol 15(5): e1006918. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006918
The authors analyzed five ELNs and compared their features. Microsoft OneDrive was found to provide comparable functionality to other ELN platforms specifically designed for the purpose, even though it is a general note-taking tool. Some suggestions for optimizing it for use as a lab notebook are noted below.
- Structure and formatting - users can create an unlimited number of notebooks and an unlimited number of sections and pages or subpages within a notebook. Depending on whether the notebook is created for an individual or for an entire group, a notebook for each project with sections for each contributor is one strategy. Sections can be password protected to prevent anyone from inadvertently making changes in a section that is not their own. Links to pages can be shared between pages, sections and notebooks for repetitive use of protocols, methods and other information.
- A custom template can be created with the necessary sections for a given experiment type: Background or introduction, objectives, materials and methods, results and conclusions. The template is saved and can be reused for every experiment.
- Consistent file naming protocols and the use of defined tags or keywords will make locating records easier. A format should be defined in advance and communicated to all researchers in the group.
- OneNote provides a date and time stamp when a page is created. Date and time stamps can be added to sections of the page when an experiment is started and finished. This allows documentation of an experiment to be continued on a single page until complete.
- Data Acquisition - Raw data should be linked to the appropriate notebook section either by attaching it into the notebook page or by using a link if it is stored externally. A OneDrive folder or SharePoint site can be used for larger datasets that can't be saved into the notebook.
- Data Presentation - Drawing tools can be used to create drawings or to make notes, audio and video notes can be saved in the notebook and pictures of experimental set ups or of handwritten notes can also be attached. Spreadsheets or text documents can be created inside a notebook but can also be created separately but attached to the notebook.
- Emails can be saved to a notebook section to document communications, pages can also be emailed as pdf's with links to the original page or inserts.
There are some drawbacks to using OneNote as an ELN. Data storage is limited to the storage available in the OneDrive associated with the account (1 TB for OSU accounts) and organizing data storage requires manual backups. The maximum file size for upload to OneDrive is 15 GB and the maximum file size for upload to OneNote is 2 GB. Monitoring data quality, data security and preventing corruption of OneNote records all require discipline and training for team members. Careful use of password protection and saving copies of notebooks to secure folders offline will help prevent data loss.
Open Science Framework as an ELN
Open Science Framework (OSF) is a free, cloud-based platform for research collaboration. The OSF Wiki is available for documentation using a standard format or template. Components can be created for organizing other records such as instrument data, computer code, manuscripts and meeting reports. OSF can also be linked to third party platforms called add-ons for cloud data storage, saving code, data archiving in repositories and file sharing.
Access to each component in OSF can controlled by making it public or it can be kept private and shared only with specific contributors, it has an automatic versioning function that tracks who has accessed a component and what changes were made as well as a time and date stamp. The default setting is private for each component so that sharing requires intentionally changing the setting to "Public".
Detailed information about the use of OSF for project management is available from this video of a workshop presented by Clarke Iakovakis, Scholarly Services Librarian, on February 13, 2019.
Successful use of OSF as an ELN requires creating an appropriate folder structure to optimize organization of research records. Adapting one of the available templates can be a good start since novice users may not find it intuitive. It may also be awkward to access files stored in the third party platforms (add-ons). OSF storage is limited to 5 GB for private projects so creating a workflow that utilizes cloud storage will be necessary. Public projects have 50 GB of OSF storage available to them so making the project public is another way to maximize storage. Private components of less than 5 GB can be created if necessary to stay within the storage limit if needed.
OSF projects can be forked, creating copies without making changes to the original. A copy of an ELN created by the Johns Hopkins University Data Management Services is shown below and can be found found at this link: https://osf.io/usft5/
Detailed information about using OSF Wiki as an ELN can be found at:
Lunt, Dave H. 2020. “Guide to Using an OSF Wiki as an ELN.” OSF. May 6. osf.io/pfhqc.
LabArchives for CHS
The OSU Center for Health Sciences Medical Library is currently implementing LabArchives for use by researchers on the CHS campus and the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation. It is not presently available to researchers on the OSU-Stillwater or OSU-Tulsa campuses.