ERNs & LabArchives

What is an ERN?

Historically, keeping a paper lab notebook to record experimental work has been a tradition in many disciplines. Paper notebooks are good for writing down procedures, observations and conclusions or for drawing flow charts and diagrams by hand. However, in order to accommodate the modern influx of digital data, researchers have often taped instrumentation and computer printouts into their notebooks, or even cross-referenced larger data sets by recording file names and locations in the notebook.

An “ERN” (electronic research notebook), sometimes referred to as an “ELN” (electronic lab notebook), is an online software tool that in its most basic form replicates an interface much like the pages of a lab notebook. ERNs have been widely used in private sector labs for many years, but only recently have major higher education institutions started to offer this service to their researchers.

In an ERN, you can enter protocols, observations, notes and other data through your computer or mobile device.

Why would I consider an ERN instead of a paper notebook?

While paper lab notebooks have a long history of maintaining the research record, they are not without functionality shortfalls. However, ERNs are considered an improvement in the areas of:

  • Searchability
  • Integration of electronic data into the notebook
  • Compliance with record-keeping
  • Sharing and collaborating
  • Portability
  • Data management
  • Reproducibility

While an ERN offers several benefits over a traditional paper notebook, the migration to an all-digital cloud service introduces new risks that PIs must consider and plan for before adoption. Additionally, it is accepted that ERNs may not be necessary, appropriate, or desirable to all researchers.

Who is providing the ERN software?

The professional edition of LabArchives has been selected by the University of Pennsylvania for our campus-wide ERN service.  A vetting process was performed from Spring 2016 to Summer 2017, and the contract for service was signed in October, 2017, with implementation taking place in the Spring semester of 2018.

Information about the LabArchives Professional Edition and Classroom Edition is available on its website.

What is the cost for me or my lab to use Penn’s LabArchives instance? 

Penn’s license offers the software at no cost to faculty, researchers, staff, graduate students, and undergraduate students for both research activities and coursework.  Penn paid in advance for services through Fall 2020.

Why should I use the campus LabArchives service instead of another ERN provider?

Penn’s LabArchives contract includes legal and security protection of your Penn Research data, negotiated by the University.  Additionally, there is no charge to eligible personnel for using the notebook.

LabArchives isn’t for me. Do you have other recommendations?

Penn recommends LabArchives. However, other popular choices for ERNs include: