A common frustration
4:13 A1-4 sl cld… Fatima squinted impatiently at yesterday’s scribbled shorthand notes she was transcribing into the electronic lab notebook. She was halfway through the grid of sticky notes she’d arrayed across the desk to keep the plate order straight for the XTT assays. She still needed to enter the protocol notes, but would need to start loading today’s batch into the reader soon. Was that a four or a seven? She stared harder. Maybe seven. She thought back, trying to conjure a mental image, but the plates ran together in her mind. Four, she thought determinedly. Frustrated, she copied the note down those samples and hoped that was right. Her group was meeting later today to review the latest screens, and she wanted to send out the full set of notes before lunch.
There weren’t enough hours in the day. They’d been increasing efficiencies at the bench, building throughput, smoothing workflows, yet it seemed for all the time gained, more was lost in the endless, redundant transcription of notes. Tracking down misplaced sticky notes, interpreting rushed scribbles, and noting everything twice was tedious and time-consuming. For a while, Fatima tried committing some notes to memory for intermittent entry in the desktop across the aisle between tasks, as some of her colleagues did, to avoid some of the extraneous writing. It only took two instances of being interrupted and forgetting details prior to logging them for her to switch back to scrawled shorthand. As it was, she knew the number and quality of her recorded notes had dropped over the years, as they screened ever greater numbers of candidates. They needed a better way.
Electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are at the forefront of the transition from paper-based to digital lab environments. Integrated, searchable, and widely accessible bench and experimental notes have had an outsized impact on research, improving data archival, reference, and collaboration.
They have one key drawback. Lab notebooks are intended for use at the bench, compiling protocols, notes, and results. Despite their added functionality and replacement of paper notebooks, ELNs leave a gap at the lab bench. Most ELN software are designed to run on a laptop or desktop computer, which has a large footprint and often needs to be segregated from wet work. As a result, many scientists have swapped notebooks for printed protocols, scraps of paper, or mental real estate at the bench, either taking breaks to enter notes and reference documents or accumulating notes for future entry. Most often, entry of notes or data into the ELN is delayed by minutes, hours, or days.
Reintroducing paper and manual data entry steps undermines the goals behind lab digitalization. They bring considerable sources of error. Slips of paper can be easily lost. Details are more likely to be missed or excluded with additional, onerous manual entry steps. Redundant data entry, recording notes on paper then transcribing them into the ELN, adds hours of unnecessary administrative work, slowing operations while delaying communication of experimental results.
Bringing the ELN to the bench
The simplest solution is often the most brilliant: functional access to an ELN through mobile devices at the bench. This allows scientists to accelerate workflows by improving protocol tracking and note taking directly through the ELN. Removing paper from workflows adds efficiency and improves lab sustainability. Importantly, using an ELN in real time at the bench enables the most reliable, complete record for benchwork.
Practicality depends on the ability to interact with the ELN, rather than passively view stored information. Marking protocol steps as completed and indicating changes or other important notes where relevant reduces workflow errors like skipping or repeating a step, even if interrupted. The boost in confidence and reduced mental load—not needing to chant key details until they can be recorded, for example—frees scientists’ focus for the task at hand. Linking documentation to protocols for quick access and reference at the bench also reduces the likelihood of users needing to leave the bench to look up details mid-process.
A mobile interface fully synced to the primary ELN platform allows multiple users to access protocol notes and attached results instantly. This enables a new level of real-time collaboration and feedback across the lab while an experiment is still in progress.
SciNote’s newly launched ELN mobile app syncs to a SciNote web account in real time, filling the ELN gap by facilitating digital workflows at the bench. In addition to the functions described, it simplifies task management with overviews of recent tasks and the ability to search, filter, and sort all tasks as well as track or update task status. Users can also record results by uploading images and file attachments directly, further enhancing bench notes. Functionality is still expanding for the new app, with additional features being prioritized by user feedback.
ELNs have brought marked improvements to research as a powerful tool for the digital lab. Their limited use at the bench diminishes their returns, often introducing redundant, paper-based steps. Bringing the ELN to the bench through mobile devices solves the shared frustration, creating a more complete, reliable, and solidly integrated scientific record.
Learn more about SciNote’s ELN mobile app.