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Electronic research notebooks can be used by any researcher in any discipline. This page contains information that will help you think about the different features of electronic notebooks and gives guidance on how to pick one that suits you. Key areas to consider are Storage and security and Forward planning as they are important for protecting and managing your data well, both now and into the future, but we would advise you read all the guidance on this page. If you have any questions about electronic notebooks please email info@data.cam.ac.uk or speak to your Faculty or Departmental librarian.

 

The Basics

Features and functionality

Storage and security

Support

Forward planning

How to pick a notebook

Further reading

 

 

Preface/disclaimer: There is no perfect product!

Currently, there is no single electronic research notebook, or ERN, product that will satisfy all researchers, all of the time. It's a cluttered and competitive marketplace, and all of the vendors seek to differentiate their products by adding more specialist features, more integrations, and more complexity. You are encouraged to look through all parts of this guide as it covers important aspects of selecting an ERN. You have a duty to ensure that your research work is managed in a responsible way – many funders explicitly state this requirement – and the information below covers important topics, such as data security, which should be as influential in your decision making as the degree to which you like the user interface of a notebook. The University does not provide a platform for researchers to use and has decided that it is not appropriate to suggest one due to the breadth of disciplines at Cambridge and the huge variety of needs that this creates.  

 

The Basics

What is an Electronic Research Notebook, and why should I use one?

An ERN is a software system for documenting your research work. In its most basic form it might simply provide a word-processor-like interface to replicate the way you currently use a paper notebook, but with additional benefits such as shareability, searchability, password protection and backup. Many ERN packages offer a wealth of other features too, enabling 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, and the level of commitment they demand, can make the task of choosing a product difficult. ERNs are also sometimes referred to as electronic lab notebooks, or ELNs, but their use does not have to be limited to a lab environment as they are useful for recording research notes in all disciplines. 

A note about DIY documentation systems

Many individuals and groups are successfully using combinations of readily available and well-established productivity tools (e.g. EvernoteOneNoteDropboxOneDrive) to operate systems that provide most of the core features of a 'real' electronic notebook. It's an attractive, economical, accessible and low-impact option utilising software tools that are already familiar to most users, but it requires a disciplined and well-organised approach, and, since the products are not designed with ERN applications in mind, users should be aware of the risk of interruption caused by unfriendly software updates. Read the case study on using OneNote as an ERN.

Free ERN products

Most commercial ERN vendors offer a free cloud-based service for individual or academic use. This might sound tempting and a lightweight way to experiment with an ERN product, but beware – most users eventually find themselves incentivised 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 management of a lab's research resources - e.g. freezer stocks & samples, reagents etc, often including procurement and ordering features. Its basic function is therefore distinct from that of an Electronic Research Notebook, but it's not unusual for features to overlap in areas like protocol management for example. Many ERN products have started life and developed as an integral part of a LIMS, and then branched into a separate product, and in some cases the LIMS heritage is still apparent in the ERN's complex and very 'database-like' interface. If you're attracted to LIMS functionality as well as an ERN, consider carefully whether you'd prefer the convenience of a single, large and complex product that will do everything, or a pair of products that might offer clearer focus and more streamlined interfaces.

Notes vs data 

Electronic research notebooks should be used in the way that works for you and your research, whilst 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 if it should be purely used for notes and observations about the data. Many researchers find that notebooks are unsuitable for keeping their data in because the files are too large, too numerous or cannot be opened directly within the notebook. Instead they will keep the data files elsewhere, such as a departmental server, and link to them from the notebook. If you are linking to files be careful about using hyperlinks – this will only work so long as the files remain in their original locations. Some suggested strategies for creating connections between your notebook and your data are: 

  • Copy the file name into the notebook along with metadata information, such as the date the data was created, who generated it, what type of file it is. 
  • Copy the file directory structure into the notebook. This is useful because even if the data is moved from the top level active folder to an archive folder, the root underneath should remain the same and therefore the file is findable even if it takes a little bit of searching. For example, the file structure might start of as 
    • C:\Documents\Project name\Folder name\File name 
    • And be later archived so the file structure becomes 
    • C:\Archived\Project name\Folder name\File name 
    • The part in bold has stayed the same, which will help you to find the file. 
  • Use a good file naming convention and ensure the file name is in the notebook. This will make searching for information easier if you cannot remember where the file is located. 

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Features and functionality 

Specialist tools

Specialist tools may be crucial to your research and the availability of them within notebooks may not be standard. Features such as special characters, drawing or timestamping may be important for how you record your work. If tools or features are not available from within the notebook it may be possible to integrate it with another tool, for example through an API.  

Trust features 

Research integrity and the ability to demonstrate this may be very important in your work. Some notebooks will have features that allow you to choose the types of access individuals have (e.g. ‘read only’ or ‘read and write’). You may need a notebook with a good edit history or 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 edited any further. Consider if any of these features are important to your work.  

Collaborative features 

Access controls for your notebook, especially when working in a research group, might be very important. You may wish to share only specific sections of your notebook  with certain individuals and this ability might not be present on all notebooks. If you are a group leader you may wish to be able to set up new notebooks for certain group members or shared notebooks for everyone. Having clear features that allow you to do this might reduce the administrative task associated with this. You might also need to consider how individuals external to your group might be given access to notebooks; for example, will they need to create an account with the notebook provider or would it better for you to export the relevant information and send it to them?  

Interoperability

Interoperability between your notebook and other systems that you use might be key for a smooth experience that enhances the research process. Ideally, all the work you do should be conducted in open source formats, i.e. file types that can be opened by a range of different software, as proprietary formats that rely on one particular piece of software 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 deal with this type of file or the information contained within it. You should also understand what formats you can get your information or data out of the notebook in and if these are proprietary or open source (see Forward Planning – Disengagement section for more).

Open data functionality

Some notebook providers may provide extra 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 needed for reproducibility and that you wish to share. 

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Storage and security

Cloud vs local server

Most vendors now favour a cloud service over local server installation, and for most users the benefits of this approach outweigh the concerns. The cloud option requires no local infrastructure or support; no worries about updates; privacy standards are typically very high; and GDPR compliance (if required) can be achieved by using Amazon storage located within the EU – it's a good choice for individuals and research groups. For institutional deployment, where integration with local systems (e.g. authentication) might be required, a local ERN server may be more appropriate. 

Back-ups

As with any piece of digital information, the work in an electronic notebook should be backed up to minimise any potential risk of data loss. It is very likely that the platform provider of the notebook software performs automatic back-ups; however, you should not assume that these happen or are adequate for your work. If they are not then you should consider implementing a back-up strategy that suits your needs, like you would for your personal laptop. 

The frequency of back-ups is one area to consider. How often are snapshots of the notebook taken? How much work could you potentially lose if the notebook platform crashed? Some platforms take snapshots every few minutes, which means very little data is lost, whereas others might take a snapshot once a day. 

Another area to consider is for how long back-ups are retained. Some platforms might store back-ups for a year or more, which would allow you to find previous versions of your work if needed. This might be deemed unnecessary by others. 

Data security

The location of the information held in your notebook, as well as the location of the back-ups, may be of the upmost importance in your research. You should find out where your data is physically kept, i.e. where is the server located that the platform provider uses? If your work needs to comply with GDPR requirements (i.e. you are working with personal or sensitive information) or you have to keep your information under certain conditions (e.g. your industry partner requires a certain level of security) then it is vital you understand the security aspects of your notebook. 

For all researchers using a notebook you should read the terms and conditions of using your chosen platform to ensure that you are happy with how the platform handles and accesses your data. 

Data retention

Data back-up and data retention are not necessarily the same thing. Whilst the notebook platform may back up your data on a defined schedule, they may also keep copies of your data even after you have deleted them from the platform. This is especially important if there are constraints around the length of time that data can be kept; for example, you may have an agreement with another data provider or with interviewees that their data will only be kept for a defined period. 

For all research related information, you should also consider how long you will need to retain it after your project has ended. Some funders have requirements for data retention and the University has best practice guidelines for retaining research related records. You may decide to keep the information in the notebook but consider if your access to the platform matches the retention schedule and if keeping ‘old’ information there will take up too much storage space. 

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Support

Costs

Many notebook options are free with paid-for options available if more features or space are needed. A paid-for option may be a good idea for some researchers or groups but you will need to carefully consider how this will be paid for. Not all funders will support the costs associated with subscription to a notebook. Subscriptions for notebooks should ideally go through the University procurement system and your department should be able to help with that.  

Usability and user support

The amount of support available and the usability of platforms will vary and may make a big difference to how effectively you use your chosen notebook. Many platforms offer a knowledge base with help guides, video tutorials or provide support via online chats or email. The usability of notebooks, without the need for support, varies between platforms and also between users, so consider how comfortable you are with navigating new products or seeking help. You should also 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.  

Where to go for support in the University

Support for using an electronic notebook need not just come from the platform provider. The University can offer support with notebooks. The Research Data Management Facility can provide advice about selecting a notebook and your departmental librarian might be able to offer support for your chosen notebook. Your departmental Computer Officer should also be able to help with any technical questions. 

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Forward planning

Longevity of platform

A bespoke notebook with features specifically targeted at your discipline might seem like an ideal solution, but you should bear in mind that there are no guarantees that platforms will be around for the long term. Well-established companies or products might offer reassurance where longevity is concerned (although they are not immune to being discontinued or left unsupported in the future), whereas there may be more uncertainty around newer products. This might be a risk that you are willing to live with, however, it is extremely important that you know what your options are for getting your data out if the platform is discontinued in the future (see section on disengagement).  

Futureproofing

Try to consider the future when selecting a product – notably, what might your future needs be and how likely is it that your platform will be responsive to changes in technology or user needs. This applies not only to new features but also to general updates to the platform and fixes for bugs. The performance of your platform might have a big impact on your experience of using it. 

Disengagement - what if I want to change systems?

One of the most substantial obstacles to the uptake of any ERN product is anxiety about the pain of disengagement if the software becomes unsuitable at any point in the future. Almost all ERN vendors provide an export feature, offering at least PDF output, and it's worth considering the value of that PDF file (compared to a paper notebook for example): it is searchable, shareable, and can be secured and duplicated – all of the basic benefits of a documentation system are satisfied. Although the old records in PDF format might not be ingested easily into a new system, they will always remain a useful electronic archive even after you start afresh using new software. Indeed, it would be good practice for all ERN users, irrespective of their level of contentment with their software, to make monthly PDF exports and to store these in multiple locations. If you require a specific data format (e.g. machine readable) for archiving purporses, check the product specifications to ensure compliance.

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How to pick a notebook

Which ERN would be best for me/my group?

A few basic questions might help to define your needs and filter the choices:

Do you have a budget? Decide how much you'd like to spend. If you do find a product that's a good fit for you and your team, and intend to rely on that service for safe keeping all of your research documentation, for years, it's probably worth paying a reasonable price. See also the note about free ERN products above. 

Will you be using this software independently, or as a group? There are some very useful, self-contained and cheap packages available for individual users who don't need all the bells and whistles of a full ERN system. 

Do you need supervisor features, like a 'dashboard' overview of your group's activity, or commenting/discussion functions?  

Are you looking to deploy at departmental/institutional level? If a site-wide deployment of a single product is essential, then you may have to acknowledge that, sadly, you probably won't please everyone. Rather than striving to provide the most comprehensive feature-set possible, your institution may be better served with a basic set of 'core' functions that are more universally relevant. 

Which operating systems will be used? Most ERN products are browser-based and therefore OS agnostic, but, as with many other complex online services, they may not be fully compatible with ALL browsers. There are some platform-specific apps on the market, which might be of interest, or could quickly be excluded from your search. 

What devices will be used to operate the ERN software? Many people need to create or update records 'live' on the bench or in other experimental areas, as well as on other devices inside and outside the lab. Others may prefer to use voice recognition tools, or to continue to scribble hand-written notes and then transcribe into a tidier, more organised record on a single computer later. Note that some vendors may charge additional fees for apps to run their software on different device types. 

Do your funding agreements require specific data security/compliance measures? Some funding agencies require all data to be securely stored, in a geographic location that ensures compliance with local data protection regulations (e.g. GDPR). Some ERN systems, however, are designed to store content and data only on their own servers (i.e. in 'the Cloud'). Large groups/departments may be able to negotiate bespoke local installations that are fully compliant, but if you are a small group without sufficient negotiating power, you may need to seek guidance/approval from your funding agency, or restrict your choice of ERN products to those that permit local storage. 

Evaluating the product

When experimenting with the software, consider the following list of functions and features.  

  • Interface design. Do you like the ‘look and feel’ of the software? Is it easy and intuitive to use? Does it seem efficient and well-designed? 
  • Workflow suitability. Does the software enable you to describe your normal working methods well? Does it suit your experiments? 
  • Content creation tools. Test all the writing and drawing tools, annotation features, etc. Does the software support markup language, mathematical equations, chemical structures, etc? 
  • Data management/storage. Are you able to upload files of typical type/format/size? If there is a file-size limit, how are larger files handled? Can you upload multiple files at the same time? Do you like how the software stores/presents the catalogue of uploaded files? Does the file handling seem fast enough? How is your data backed up? 
  • Integration with other software and/or online services. Some ERN products offer integration with Office applications, statistics software, institutional storage, data repositories, etc. Do these features seem well designed and useful to you? 
  • Collaboration features. Are you able to share resources/comments with members of your group? Can you invite people outside of your group to view or contribute to your ERN? 
  • PI/supervisor features. Does the platform provide adequate oversight of your group's activities, and tools for you to provide feedback? Can you control levels of access to resources for your group members? 
  • Export features. Can you export pages, sections or the entire notebook in a useful format? Can you export in a way that returns data files in their original formats? 

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Further reading

University approach to ERN provision

In July/August 2017, following a meeting earlier in the year ('Paperless research solutions - Electronic Lab Notebooks'), a working group in the University of Cambridge coordinated a trial of (life sciences) ERN products to explore the possibility of deployment or recommendation of a product for use at campus, school or departmental level. Because of the diversity of researchers' interests, requirements and preferences, even within a single department, the results suggested that none of the four products we trialled would satisfy all users. Therefore, rather than recommending any particular product(s) over and above the rest, this document seeks to provide guidance that might help you to identify a product that is well-suited to your personal workflows, preferences and environment.  

In 2019, the University Library committed to reviewing the provision around ERNs, which updated the work carried out in 2017. This work concluded that it was still not appropriate to roll out a University-wide platform, yet fuller support and guidance should be available for researchers. To achieve this, the resources on the Research Data Management website have been created and Faculty and Department Librarians and Computing Officers are now more aware of ERNs and how they can support their use. 

Vendor Table

A list of electronic notebook providers has been curated, which gives an overview of the products out there and some of their key features, e.g. storage methods, costs and type of platform.

Case Studies from Cambridge

OneNote

Hivebench

LabArchives

Benchling

Additional Resources

You may also be interested in joining the JISC email list (international) for discussion of all topics and issues relating to Research Notebooks.

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