Is the Electronic Laboratory Notebook Doomed?

September 30, 2009

Over at elnblog.com, Simon Coles raises some intriguing questions about the future of "ELN" (Electronic Laboratory Notebook) software. In particular, he questions the utility of the term "ELN" itself.

Some points to consider:

  • What happens when you ask your ELN vendor to describe their software without using the term "ELN"?
  • How many failures have you heard about with ELN software (shelfware, failed pilots, early replacements)? If not many, how surprising is this to you?
  • What has your vendor done lately to reduce the scope (and complexity) of their product?

I've previously questioned the utility of the term "Electronic Laboratory Notebook" myself, and at least some of you have done the same.

Language Matters

Language is important because it frames the discussion around any topic. "Electronic Laboratory Notebook" conjures up images of a paper notebook, but in electronic form. Seems convenient enough, but what's the cost?

As a thought experiment, consider the fundamental differences in two discussions, one centered on "Electronic Laboratory Notebooks" and the other centered on "Networked Laboratory Information":

  • Electronic Laboratory Notebook This discussion will revolve around how we currently use paper notebooks, and how best to do the same thing electronically. Our mental model will be a bound volume of pages kept in private.
  • Networked Laboratory Information This discussion will start out with identifying the many forms of information we create and use, and the needs of those doing the creating and using. It would then move on to how best to share this information within our organization, and with our customers and partners in a secure manner. Our mental model will be the most well-known computer network - the Internet.

Just a small change in terminology results in two radically different discussions. The moral: find your real enemy and don't let marketers usurp your power by injecting obsolete terms into the discussion.