The winds of change are blowing in the electronic laboratory notebook world.
The first ELNs were developed in the 1990’s in the private business sector, as a response to the conflicting needs of an increasingly digital, paper-free workplace and the legal necessity to securely document patentable innovations in a tamper-proof way. The primary adopters of these early ELNs were the “Big Pharma” companies, looking to protect their corporate intellectual property. Thus, the first wave ELNs were Windows-based software packages that would be installed on an individual PC workstation. They were very complex tools, highly specific to a particular domain, that required lengthy training on the part of users and system administrators. Not surprisingly, these systems were extremely expensive, which placed them well outside the reach of any other potential customers. By the early 2000’s, the ELN landscape shifted; academic researchers recognized the value of a quick, computer-based method to capture the day-to-day data generated in their laboratories that also provide a way to engage in scientific collaboration across the globe. Without the resources to afford the existing ELNs used by the pharmaceutical industry, individual academics began using and modifying widely available generic tools, such as Dropbox and Evernote. These were fairly flexible, easy to use, and just about as cheap as can be. Yet, this cheapness came at the cost of security. A more secure method was needed to capture the scientific records that could also reliably track the various versions of a document over the course of its history. To fulfill this need, a second wave of ELNs arose, aimed at deployment within a single laboratory under the supervision of a Primary Investigator, who could determine the amount of sharing permissible within and among groups. Examples of such ELNs include eCat, Lab Archives, and Ruro. They were designed to be more generic and less domain specific, allowing cross-disciplinary collaborations and the potential for completely novel innovations. Taking a tip from the self-adapted internet tools, the second generation ELNs began to be web-based, freeing academics from being bound to specific computer platform. These ELNs made improvements in usability as well. However, they were limited in scale, being suited best to single laboratories.
Enter the 2010’s.
An ELN revolution appears to be brewing on the horizon. Beginning in 2011 and 2012, a handful of large universities have begun to seek out affordable data management systems that could be deployed across their entire institution, allowing inter- and intra-group collaboration, version tracking, security, and ease of use. These newer solutions must be platform independent, support data publishing, accommodate data in a variety of formats, and must not only allow archiving but must retain sufficient metadata to allow searchable retrieval. ELNs will most certainly need to be fully mobile to take advantage of tablets and other mobile devices. Above all, these systems must be scalable to thousands of users. Pilot trials of such enterprise ELN solutions, such as RSpace, have taken place from 2012 to 2013. The ELN revolution is certainly beginning, as more institutions recognize that digital data capture is rendering traditional recording methods more and more inefficient. At the present, a few major U.S. institutions are poised to enact the largest deployment yet seen in academia, with others sure to follow soon.