Evernote as an Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN)

March 08, 2013

Electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) have a reputation for being complex, hard to learn, and expensive. The increasing popularity of general-purpose note-taking applications such as Evernote has prompted some to ask whether this kind of software could be used as a simpler, less expensive ELN.

The idea sounds appealing - but is Evernote really a viable ELN option today?

Why Scientists Love/Hate ELNs

A recent (informal) survey from NYU asked participants about their experiences with ELNs versus paper lab notebooks.

When paper notebook users were asked why they didn't switch to an ELN, the top responses included:

  • "Like the ability to draw/freehand directly into a paper notebook" (75%)
  • "Am comfortable using a paper lab notebook" (70%)
  • "Like the familiarity of the paper lab notebook" (57%)
  • "Like the portability of a paper notebook" (57%)

When ELN users were asked about limitations of their current systems, the top responses included:

  • "Can't draw or freehand into an entry" (75%)
  • "Inflexible or rigid format" (50%)
  • "Concerns about security or legality (HIPAA etc.)" (42%)
  • "Can't carry notebook around with me" (33%)

Flexibility and ease of making entries showed up as a key factor in both staying with a paper notebook and frustration with an existing ELN. A secondary factor was the perceived physical portability of a PLN compared to an ELN.

The Good

Evernote has many features to make it an attractive replacement for a paper notebook. For one thing, it's free. A highly functional, cost-free version of Evernote can be used indefinitely. The main restriction is on the amount of data that can be stored. Premium accounts remove this restriction and add other features as well.

Another reason to like Evernote is its availability on both desktops (Windows/Mac/Linux) and tablets (iPad/Android). An additional advantage is that Evernote makes sharing data across devices easy with its cloud-based storage option - a key consideration with the increased use of tablets in labs.

Ease of use, a concern of many ELN users, is virtually a non-issue with Evernote. The combination of a simple interface and widespread usage outside the lab increases the chances of getting down to work quickly.

The Not-So-Good

The biggest limitation of Evernote as an ELN may be its lack of structure. Although the simplicity of preparing freeform Notes and compiling them into notebooks is appealing, Evernote offers little in the way of the structure needed for many ELN applications out of the box.

Fortunately, a number of third party extensions are available through the Evernote Trunk. One standalone ELN (and apparently the only one) to offer Evernote integration is iPad ELN, which confusingly enough bears no relationship to the iPad device.

Another limitation of Evernote is poor in-app integration with custom data handling tools. Although Evernote comes with remarkable document text-indexing capabilities and can display many kinds of images, custom data types such as chemical structures, spectra, and other instrument data will likely exist as nothing more than flat file attachments inside a Note.

In some lab settings, security and legal concerns (such as 21 CFR 11 compliance) may further limit the feasibility of using Evernote.

Resources

In addition to the previously-mentioned survey on ELN use, which also describes a six-month trial of Evernote as an ELN in a lab setting, a few other explorations of Evernote as an ELN have been documented:

Conclusions

For labs with minimal requirements around special data types and electronic signatures, Evernote offers much to like as a replacement for a paper notebook or expensive ELN system. For others with more specific needs, paper or a dedicated ELN system will be the only options.