How to get researchers to adopt electronic lab notebooks - 5 keys for success | Vega Shah

The process of replacing an age-old practice - hand-filled paper notebooks - remains not just a technical challenge but also a social one.

The replacement of paper notebooks with electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) has become inevitable.

Technology gurus have predicted this imminent shift since the early 90s. With the advent of lab automation combined with sequencing technologies becoming increasingly affordable, the sheer volume of data produced in clinical and discovery-based research labs is impossible for humans to record and analyze by hand.

The shift from paper to ELNs is not without challenges. The current market for biotech software consists of a vast variety of products that can assist lab researchers in documenting experiments, workflows, protocols and allow for collaboration.

The choice of ELN is a difficult one and must account for budget, ease of use, scalability and whether the software of choice will continue to be supported for the foreseeable future. And even after accounting for these needs, an important but hard to define issue lies ahead – user adoptability. Organizations face loss of time and resources when their users are unable to adopt ELNs successfully.

A 2022 study published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association presents a case study for implementing an institution-wide ELN for 800+ lab researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine (IUSM). The study consists of two stages – an initial pilot with a small subset of users (67), followed by a survey to record reasons for successful adoption, and a full implementation spanning a period of 1 year and expansion to 829 users.

This case study is especially impactful due to the sheer number of scientists that were able to successfully adopt to the use of ELNs. The study summarizes the main strategies to encourage cultural and behavioral change in lab scientists that can result in successful ELN implementation.

The authors found that there were five key drivers of change.

1. Infrastructure: Centralizing licensing and easy access to ELN accounts for all lab scientists on a cloud-based platform.

2. UI/UX (user interface & user experience): Lab scientists reported that their work became easier and more efficient after switching to an ELN. Specifically with the use of experimental templates, shared protocols with their team, standard naming conventions and a user favorite – widgets for routine analysis/calculations.

3. Communities: Creating spaces that allow users to share knowledge can help create safe spaces to learn. Popular mediums include Atlassian Confluence, Wikis, or dedicated groups on chat-based apps like Teams or Slack.

4. Incentives: In this study, users were mainly incentivized via added efficiency to their work. And the ability to use handheld devices like mobile phones and tablets in their laboratory workflow. But there are other strategies smaller organizations can employ, for example – an established weekly social hour for lab workers to collectively update and share ELNs.

5. Policy – In order to change research culture and behavior, the policies must directly address ELNs. In addition, the policies should clearly describe how ELNs should be used and their net benefit to the organization.

The process of replacing an age-old practice - hand-filled paper notebooks - with ELNs is not just a technical challenge, but also a social one. Successful adoption is intertwined with the people and culture of science.

To successfully implement ELNs and other Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS), organizations must focus not just on the technical side of handling data but also the key catalysts of behavioral change in users.

Vega Shah is a product manager and biologist at Dotmatics, a scientific software company.