These days, it seems that more and more researchers are talking about the importance of lab digitalization. Whether the headlines involve inconsistencies in lab data that spark Olympic scandals, or the U.S. Department of Energy calling out national laboratories for disorganized and inaccurate inventory monitoring systems, the decision to adopt transparent and secure lab informatics software is becoming less a matter of convenience than of necessity.

But for researchers who have been in the habit of relying on paper notebooks to capture data and plan experiments, what’s the best place to start?

Climbing Out from Under Paper Mountain

Lab managers and principal investigators are under constant, intense pressure to progress their research or commercialize a product. In this type of work environment, every second is extremely valuable, and every moment spent searching for experiment data across multiple lab notebooks or managing inventory is potentially a lost opportunity to break through scientific boundaries.

But in order to prove that a breakthrough is reproducible, accurate lab documentation is essential. As such, every step, every result, every bit of material needs to be documented. Relying on illegible, unorganized notes—particularly after a researcher has left the lab—as well as inaccurate inventory lists, forces PIs to rely on progress conversations rather that corroborated data.

Easing the Burden with Electronic Laboratory Notebooks

The best way to start addressing these issues is to establish a single, central source of truth for your research data. A lab management system that includes an electronic lab notebook (ELN) can be a crucial first step for addressing concerns about research transparency and collaboration that research teams need so they can focus more on science, instead of inefficient documentation, data exchanges, ordering and administrative activities.

“The shift toward more collaborative environments relies on clear and frequent communication,” according to a recent article in Lab Manager. “Waiting days or weeks to discuss progress and results at the next lab meeting is inefficient and archaic. ELNs enable rapid, real-time collaboration and data review, so that collaborators can spot and address problems sooner, for better experimental outcomes and fewer wasted resources.”

An ELN is a software application designed for enhancing or replacing today’s standard methods of paper notebooks to manage and archive experimental data. While features can vary among vendors, an ELN should provide a secure, searchable digital archive of your project notes. According to Lab Manager:

„An ELN offers users the ability to create a comprehensive experiment that includes important concepts, diagrams, images, and videos in addition to a protocol, and prevents important information from being dispersed across multiple lab notebooks. This consolidation simplifies experimental setup, for example, with the inclusion of images of cable connections or instrument positions and settings. It also improves reproducibility, as the ability to share this protocol with multiple scientists provides each colleague with access to the same, most up to date, version. This is an enormous advantage for large laboratories, or those with multiple sites, as the same information may be accessed from anywhere.“

Lab Collaboration Photo

Getting (and Staying!) Organized for Better Communication

With traditional paper notebooks, notes can become lost, illegible, or placed out of context once the notebook goes into the archives. With an ELN, the project folder structure stays organized in a meaningful way, and the notes should be accessible to labmates who have been granted appropriate permissions, regardless of their location.

For lab managers and PIs managing distributed research teams, or who are running experiments in two or more labs in different locations, streamlining and standardizing communication is another added benefit of ELNs and lab management software. Team members in a lab send emails back and forth constantly, which essentially scatters virtual pieces of paper everywhere that aren’t readily discoverable or associated with the core project notebook. A collaborative ELN allows all the relevant project-related chatter and communications to be tracked in a single system of record.

Lab Management Solutions for Laboratory Needs

Some researchers prefer to use Microsoft Office tools as intermediate solution to digital lab management. However, although Outlook, OneNote, Excel, and SharePoint all have their value, they ultimately provide a disjointed approach to the research workflows that modern labs need.

For instance, you can keep your inventory list in Excel and project notes in OneNote, but the two programs don’t speak to one another. A fully-integrated lab management system, such as BrightLab, can automatically pull your inventory into your experiment notes and planning, and then automatically deduct the materials as used once the experiment is marked complete in the ELN.

Establishing and maintaining best practices for inter-team communication can not only introduce vital efficiencies to your lab’s most common workflows, it can be beneficial for regulatory compliance and data accountability. Unlike Microsoft Office apps, some ELNs and integrated lab management software allow research teams to track completed steps in an experiment, producing an audit trail for external validation. ELNs that provide e-signature and witnessing capabilities are designed to support FDA 21 CFR Part 11 compliance.

Make Time for Progress

It’s essential to improve communication between research and development for effective and efficient product scale-up. While some may be hesitant to refresh their lab’s routines, the short-term costs of adapting to a new system are far outweighed by the long-term benefits of improved collaboration and more efficient communication. Now may be just the right time to set aside the old hassle of shuffling through old paper archives and noodling over the logistics of ordering supplies, and start using digital lab management software to maximize your team’s time for scientific progress.