ELN Software Selection: Finding the Right Solution for Your Business

July 8, 2024

Healthcare workers sharing a tablet device data with a coworker

Electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are now well established in the pharma/life sciences industry but with such a wide variety of options to choose from, how do you find the right solution for your business? In this blog we’ll outline some of the common pitfalls that can occur when selecting an ELN and how to avoid them.

Why do you need an ELN?

The first and most important consideration is to understand why do you need ELN software. ELNs are typically used as a standardized mechanism to capture research activities formally but ELNs can confer additional support to an organization. An ELN enables improved data structure, integrity, and compliance. Additionally, it can, depending on the software, provide the ability to create relationships between samples, inventory, and experimental design and output. However, why your organization needs an ELN will depend on your specific situation. Do you already have established lab processes and want to improve data integrity and/or efficiency with a new digital system or are you just getting started? Whether you’re looking for an ELN that can fit into an established IT infrastructure, or you have a clean slate, we always advocate a data-centric approach which starts with a clear understanding of your current digital landscape, workflows, and business priorities as discussed in a previous blog, What is a LIMS, and How Do I Know if I Need One?.

Defining how you intend to use the system both today and a few years from now can help future-proof your investment and avoid costly mistakes. For example, can you foresee a need for more than one user to work on a record at the same time? Not all ELNs support concurrent working so this should be part of your selection criteria if it’s likely to be required. Are there any validation requirements such as GxP? If so, ensuring the ELN supports your organization’s requirements for witness and review as well as electronic signatures and audit trails will be critical in the selection process.

Do you have the right infrastructure/lab setup?

Thinking about how users will interact with the ELN throughout their daily activities can uncover some additional challenges. First, is internet access readily available? Some older facilities were not designed with Wi-Fi in mind and may require an infrastructure upgrade. Another common challenge is mobility: it’s not unusual to see scientists walking around and writing down observations or readings on Post-it notes in the lab and then transcribing the data to an ELN when they’re back in the office. Avoiding this situation could be as simple as ensuring monitors and keyboards are available in the lab at each workstation or it may require the use of mobile devices such as tablets. Voice-enabled solutions can be particularly useful in situations where hands-free data recording is needed such as working in biosafety cabinets. Label printers and barcode scanners can also help simplify data entry and reduce the risk of errors, particularly for sample analysis. Ensuring that the ELN you select is easy to use on tablet devices and/or supports voice-enabled commands can make the difference between a successful or unsuccessful implementation.

Are users ready for the change?

Change management and support for user adoption is critical to the success of any implementation. Not explaining why it’s necessary to use a dedicated ELN instead of MS Office documents (Word, Excel, OneNote, etc.) can lead to resistance and poor adoption. Reluctance by users to relinquish their old ways of working is common unless there’s a shared understanding of the value an ELN provides, such as meeting ALCOA principles.

A common concern among scientists who’ve been in the industry for a while and are used to using a mix of paper lab notebooks, spreadsheets, and instrument software is that moving to an ELN will make their processes even more complicated. After all, their ways of working are well established and using a new system can seem like extra work. The key to overcoming these objections is often to look at the entire workflow and show how any additional effort to capture structured data provides new and valuable abilities, such as running searches and perform comprehensive analysis across experiments, in a more time effective manner. It’s always a good idea to ask ELN software vendors if they can help you build a clear business case with tangible evidence of value that’s tailored to your specific use cases.

Template and workflow design also plays an important role in achieving the right balance between structured data capture and flexible experimentation. This can include using dropdown lists and controlled vocabulary to ensure consistency in recording important metadata while still providing free-form notes sections. It’s also useful to define protocols about what needs to be documented and what doesn’t, especially for inventory. If a sample or reagent is transient, for example if it’s created and used within the same experiment, then it probably doesn’t need to be registered as an inventory item. Similarly, if a sample or material is an intermediate and it’s easy to trace genealogy to its parent/child relationships, it shouldn’t require as much detail as others. Applying this kind of logic can help reduce documentation overhead while still ensuring the right information is available to those who need it.

How will you know if your ELN implementation is successful?

Some ELNs provide dashboards to show how the system is being used. These can provide useful insights into how long experiments remain open and whether there are any bottlenecks in the pipeline, for example at the review stage. Having access to operational analytics is also helpful to understand if templates designed for specific workflows or functional groups are actively being used, or workarounds such as generic templates are preferred instead. This can then lead to conversations with the users to understand if the lack of adoption is a training issue or the template functionality isn’t fit for the intended purpose.

Looking for more help selecting and implementing the right ELN for your organization?

Our R&D Technology consultants aren’t just technology experts; we also have hands-on laboratory experience, and we know first-hand how important it is to select the right platform for your business. We can provide independent advice and support for your technology and vendor selection process based on our deep scientific domain knowledge and business consulting expertise. Contact us today and speak with one of our ELN experts.


Claire Hill

Claire Hill

Business Consultant

Warren Vieira

Warren Vieira

Research Platforms Manager


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