Make your data count
Date:June 07, 2018

Electronic Lab Notebooks

ELNs provide secure collaboration with fellow researchers for the collection and management of research data.

Electronic lab notebooks are alternatives to traditional paper lab notebook. The LabArchives web-based ELN system is now available to all members of the University of Oxford. Among other things, the service can be used for storing research data, and for sharing files with colleagues within the University and beyond.

See the LabArchives help pages for details of how to register and access this service.

Reproduced below are the practical suggestions distilled from the earlier stages of the Oxford ELN project, in which best practice was analysed through interviews with researchers at Oxford and at other institutions already using ELN solutions:

Practical suggestions for keeping an electronic research notebook

Groups that successfully move from a paper to digital will find it easier to search and share a rich record of their research.

An electronic record of research must enable researchers to prove the provenance of their work: i.e. records should be timestamped, signed, and where appropriate cosigned.

Specialist software called electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) can be used in place of paper notebooks because they are compliant with strict information security controls and regulation such as ‘CFR Part 11’.

ELNs must be procured with the following points in mind:

  • Jurisdiction of service – due to data protection legislation (GDPR), the ELN software must be hosted and maintained on servers on University premises, or by a third-party that is based in the EU. Third-party suppliers based outside of the EU must sign EU model clauses. It should also be noted that some datasets have additional jurisdictional constraints, e.g. research that falls under export control legislation.
  • ISO27001 / University security schedule – the ELN supplier must meet stringent information security controls for managing confidential data. (If third-parties are not ISO27001 compliant, they must complete the University third-party security assessment (TPSA) and sign the University Security Schedule.)
  • CFR Part 11 – the ELN must enable researchers to keep a detailed and complete record of their work. This means all versions of records should be signed and timestamped, and it should be possible to countersign records too.
  • SLA – research groups will expect to be able to access their notebooks perhaps 24 x 7. The ELN supplier will need to meet a specific service level agreement.
  • Indemnity – the ELN supplier is the data processor as defined under GDPR, and as such may be responsible for data breaches that could attract significant fines from the ICO. The supplier will need to agree sufficient indemnity if this scenario arises, and will likely need to cover such costs via their insurance arrangements.
  • Cost – research groups should make sure they can continue to pay for the ELN throughout the time they plan to use the system.
  • Export – research groups should make sure their content can be exported and used independently of the ELN system. It should still be possible to prove the provenance of exported content too (e.g. using SHA-2 hashcodes).

Once a research group has chosen an ELN it will need to develop ‘good practices’ along the following lines:

  • Frequency, detail and format – how often notebooks should be updated, the level of detail, and whether templates can be used to structure content
  • Signing – most ELNs will make it easy to sign notebook entries e.g. when using COSHH forms to agree experimental safety measures
  • Sharing – who should be able to see and edit notebooks
  • Ownership – notebooks are private by default, so if the owner leaves the University without transferring ownership their content will be lost: PIs and departments should agree how content ownership will be transferred
  • Storing data – ELNs typically provide a hierarchical folder structure with simple metadata tagging. This is fine for most groups, but for those collecting large volumes of data and detailed metadata, it will be better to use a database optimised for storing the specific dataset, and to link to records in the database from the ELN