Author profile: Richard Halton

Without proper organization, even quality research work can be worthless. While electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) make organizing information much more manageable than traditional methods, good lab notebook-keeping practices are still crucial for streamlined operations, enhanced collaboration, and, most importantly, compliance. 

However, most growing biotech companies get overwhelmed with the abundant research data and often wonder how to organize lab notebook notes properly. While there is no right way to structure information in a lab notebook, as an experienced ELN provider, we have some expert tips that can help you manage the abundant research data and increase your research team’s efficiency in the lab.

The importance of lab notebook organization

Biotech research involves complex processes. Even the slightest errors can lead to more significant problems down the line, meaning accuracy in recording experimental procedures, measurements, observations, and outcomes, as well as their reproducibility, are vital to ensure the validity of results.

From sample preparation to data analysis, an organized lab notebook helps prevent errors and reduce the chances of bottlenecks in the research process.

An organized lab notebook helps researchers easily find the information they need, which means less time searching and more time spent on essential research tasks. This contributes to streamlined workflows and enhanced collaboration capabilities. It also ensures data integrity throughout the process.

How to Organize a Lab Notebook for Growing Biotech Companies

At its heart, ELNs are like paper notebooks, but they require proper organization for their information to be valuable.

To help you make sense of your research data, here is Sapio’s practical guide on how to organize a lab notebook: 

1. Establish a project-based structure

Traditionally, biotech organizations follow a researcher-based approach to recording research data. This involves giving separate paper notebooks to each researcher to record their findings. 

Not only is this approach time-consuming, but it can also lead to increased confusion as the information is spread across multiple notebooks.

With a project-based structure, you can manage various workflows within the same project by customizing sections on ELNs. For instance, a basic research workflow might focus more on exploratory experiments and hypothesis testing, while a product development workflow might focus on iterative testing and optimization.

This makes it easier for team members to find information related to specific experiments and their results, and to add their inputs. The result is increased collaboration and ease of project progress tracking.

2. Use standardized naming conventions and metadata fields

Standardized naming conventions, such as including plasmid names or sample ID tags into file names and experiment labels, reduce confusion, making it easier for researchers and scientists to find specific information.

For instance, if all experiments related to a specific project follow the same naming format, it becomes much simpler to find them when needed.

Here are a few examples of naming conventions:

●      ProjectName_ExperimentNumber_Description (ProjectX_001_GeneSequencing)

●      ProjectName_ScientistName_Date (YYYYMMDD) (ProjectX_JohnDoe_20241602)

●      ProtocolName_VersionNumber (PCR_Protocol_v4)

To take data structuring to the next level, consider metadata fields such as instrument identifiers, experiment names, sample names, project identifiers, and keywords related to the experiment. This helps identify and sort entries based on various criteria, improving efficiency and enabling better collaboration among team members through efficient data sharing and data management practices. Apart from organizing information, metafields give valuable insight into the research data.

3. Use templates

Standardized templates outline the essential sections and information required for each type of experiment, including discovery and development. This makes it easier for researchers to record their work in a consistent and error-free manner. When creating templates, make sure you consider your unique requirements, such as specific bioanalytical workflows and objectives.

Additionally, the templates should be constantly reviewed and updated to fit the changing research requirements of your biotech company. Assign this responsibility to a lab worker and have them work according to a standardized control and maintenance plan.

Sapio ELN offers reusable, pre-designed experiment templates to make data recording effortless and efficient.

4. Use a user permissions hierarchy

When setting up ELNs, an important step is creating a list of lab members and their roles and responsibilities for a specific project. This is necessary for optimal lab personnel management and data security with sensitive research information. Based on this list, develop a user permissions hierarchy to control who can access, edit, and manage the information stored in your ELN.

Unlike other ELNs, Sapio offers a user-friendly interface with a robust permission customization feature. With our ELN, you can assign different access levels based on roles and ensure scientists have the appropriate permissions for their tasks.

For instance, admins will have complete control over the ELN storage. They can manage user permissions, create or delete entries, modify the structure, and even add electronic signatures, thereby simplifying approval workflows. Researchers and scientists will only be able to create, edit, and view entries related to the experiments and projects they’re involved in.

This contributes to standardized processes necessary to prevent unintentional edits or deletions of critical templates and maintain clean, reliable data.

How Sapio ELN can help your growing biotech company

The suitable measures to organize your research data will depend on factors such as your company’s size, the nature of research projects, and the level of collaboration among team members.

Smaller companies often have an easy time maintaining a simple organizational structure, while larger organizations will require complex systems to manage larger volumes of data, and multiple research projects. In addition, the level of collaboration among researchers and the need for data sharing can impact lab notebook organization.

However, many biotech companies that start small eventually grow in size, and their requirements can change. This means investing in flexible ELN solutions that can grow with your business is ideal.

Cloud-based ELN can be customized to your specific needs, whether that’s lab workflows or templates. Sapio ELN is a comprehensive platform designed for productivity that removes all your data organization worries.

From pre-set, reusable templates to user permission customization features, you can keep your entire workforce connected and productive with Sapio. Contact us today for more information about our ELN or guidance on lab notebook organization.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. How to handle legacy data from paper notebooks or other formats when transitioning to an ELN?: Transitioning legacy data from paper notebooks into an ELN involves digitizing physical records through scanning or manual entry, then categorizing and tagging this data with appropriate metadata to ensure it’s searchable and organized within the ELN structure. This process may also require validating the accuracy of the data entered to maintain its integrity.
  2. What specific challenges do biotech startups face when first implementing an ELN, and how can they be overcome?: Biotech startups might face challenges such as limited resources for ELN implementation, the need to train staff unfamiliar with digital data management, and the need to ensure that the chosen ELN can scale with the company’s growth. Overcoming these challenges involves selecting cost-effective ELN solutions with robust support and training resources, and ensuring the ELN’s flexibility to adapt to evolving research needs.
  3. How can companies ensure compliance with regulatory standards (like FDA or EMA guidelines) when organizing their ELN?: To ensure compliance with regulatory standards, companies should choose ELNs that offer features like audit trails, secure data encryption, and controlled access permissions. Organizing an ELN to meet regulatory requirements involves setting up standardized processes for data entry, review, and approval, and ensuring that all data handling practices adhere to the specific guidelines of regulatory bodies such as the FDA or EMA.

Ensuring Compliance with Regulatory Standards: Organizing an ELN to meet regulatory standards like FDA or EMA guidelines involves implementing features such as detailed audit trails, secure data encryption, and controlled access permissions. The ELN should support adherence to standards like ISO 17025:2017 and ISO 15189:2012, which are crucial for laboratory information management and electronic record-keeping. Selecting an ELN that offers these functionalities and configuring it to enforce compliance protocols is essential. The Worcester Polytechnic Institute provides guidelines on data management and record-keeping, highlighting the importance of ethical considerations and data integrity in lab notebooks, which can help align with regulatory standards​​.

Handling Legacy Data from Paper Notebooks: Transitioning legacy data into an ELN is crucial for maintaining historical data integrity and ensuring seamless continuity of research documentation. The process involves digitizing paper records, which can be manually entered into the ELN or scanned and uploaded as digital files. Once digitized, it’s important to organize this data within the ELN using consistent naming conventions and metadata to make it easily searchable and accessible. Resources like Harvard’s Data Management site offer guidance on electronic lab notebooks (ELNs), emphasizing their role in facilitating good data management practices, providing data security, and supporting auditing and collaboration​​.