Clinical Researcher—October 2022 (Volume 36, Issue 5)
Vega Shah, PhD
Electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs), when used in clinical research labs, can allow for increased efficiency in recording experimental results, help maintain data provenance, and provide greater reproducibility. An ELN can also allow principal investigators (PIs) to oversee lab research and manage documentation in a structured way to meet regulatory requirements. Further, the ability to integrate ELNs containing preclinical data to patient information stored in electronic medical records or electronic health records can be a boon for clinical data managers seeking to improve traceability.
In addition to the specific benefits listed above, the use of ELNs for clinical and preclinical lab research can provide several other benefits. For example, adherence to the FAIR data principles recognized by the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Data Science Strategy can make academic labs favorable candidates to receive federal funding.
Broadly, digital records stored on a web-based ELN can allow PIs and lab managers to prevent loss of information due to employee turnover, accidental damage to physical devices like laptops, or illegible handwritten laboratory records. All these measures can generally make experimental results easier to find and share.
However, the transition from paper notebooks to ELNs is not without challenges. The current market for life sciences software consists of a vast variety of products that can assist lab researchers in documenting experiments, workflows, and protocols while allowing for collaboration. The process of choosing the right 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.
Even after accounting for the above needs, an important yet 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 Real-World Scenario
A 2022 study published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association presents a case study for implementing an institution-wide ELN for more than 800 lab employees at the Indiana University School of Medicine. The study consists of two stages—an initial pilot with a small subset of users (67) that was followed by a survey to record reasons for successful adoption, then full implementation spanning a one-year period and expansion to 829 users.
This case study is especially impactful due to the sheer number of scientists who were able to successfully adapt to the use of ELNs. The study summarizes the main strategies to encourage cultural and behavioral change in lab employees that can result in successful ELN implementation. The authors found that there were five key drivers of change:
- Infrastructure—Centralizing licensing and easy access to ELN accounts for all lab scientists on a cloud-based platform.
- User Interface and User Experience—Lab scientists reported that their work became easier and more efficient after switching to an ELN, specifically through the use of experimental templates, shared protocols with their team, standard naming conventions, and widgets for routine analysis/calculations.
- Communities—Establishing resources and avenues that allow users to share knowledge can help create safe spaces to learn. Popular mediums include wikis, office hours, or dedicated groups on chat-based apps like Teams or Slacks.
- 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. However, there are other strategies smaller organizations can employ; for example, an established weekly social hour for lab workers to collectively update and share ELNs.
- Policy—In order to change research culture and behavior, an organization’s 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 remains 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, organizations must focus not just on the technical side of handling data, but also the key catalysts of behavioral changes in scientists conducting preclinical and clinical bench science.
Vega Shah, PhD, is Product Manager of Software Integrations for Dotmatics, based in the San Fransciso Bay area.