The Story So Far…a brief history of the Chemistry ELN at Cambridge

The rationale for some of the decisions described below will be the subject of future blogs…

The beginnings:  Prof Steve Ley is a passionate exponent of using electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) for recording research experiments.  In the autumn of 2009, his enthusiasm resulted in Cambridge University’s Chemistry department adopting an ELN for its PhD students & post-doctoral researchers.

Selecting an ELN:  There was significant discussion about whether to choose an Open Source ELN, which would be freely available to any academic research institution, or a commercial ELN.  It was decided that we needed to deploy a mature, supported product with rich, easily-extensible, functionality.  This topic will be revisited in more detail in a future blog.  For now, suffice it to say that the department chose a commercial ELN, developed by IDBS, a leading developer of scientific software based in Guildford, UK.

Setting it up out-of-the-box Most of the set-up activities for the Chemistry ELN were carried out as part of the JISC-funded CLARION project.  A new ELN needs a lot of work to set up; it’s analogous to opening a new spreadsheet – completely empty, with no guidance or rules for how the data should be arranged.  Configuring the ELN requires an understanding of the needs of the user, the work practices of the department, and the capabilities of the software.  As time and resources were limited, a quick prototyping approach was used to give an initial best-guess configuration, with the intention to refine details over time based on feedback from users.  This was facilitated greatly by the previous experience of some team members and invaluable help from IDBS in teaching us the capabilities of the ELN software.

Deploying the ELN:  We decided to start with a small pilot of using the ELN, which would give us feedback to build on for wider deployment.  We knew about a dozen Principal Investigators (PI’s) who had expressed an interest in trying the ELN, so they were asked to nominate a researcher to join the pilot.  Preference was given to new starters – PhD students and post-docs who had not yet developed ways of working in their new surroundings.  There were about 20 pilot users, who were given a half-day training course by a training specialist from IDBS.

Organic growth:  In the time since the start of the pilot, there have not been any further major drives to recruit new users, mainly due to the lack of available resources.  However, the ELN has grown organically, and new users have been added when requests were made.  The number of experiments is growing steadily; it is ready for expanding the number of users.

ELN UsageIn summary:  Some users now have more than two years-worth of their experiments in the ELN.  Some have already moved on to new positions, and the legacy of their work is captured in the ELN for their successors to learn from.  The data is available to the principal investigator and other members of their team (if released to them) in a searchable and machine-readable form.  Writing up theses and papers, making data available for reports and publications, even after they’ve left, will be quicker and easier.  The pilot has established the viability of using an ELN in an academic environment, and uncovered some of the challenges.  The CamELS project will capitalise on the achievements of the pilot and consolidate and build on the experiences so far.

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Introducing the CamELS Project

This is the blog for CamELS, the “Cambridge Electronic Labnotebook with Southampton” project.  

The main goals of this project are:

  • To increase the use of the electronic lab notebook in the Chemistry Department at the University of Cambridge
  • To pilot the use of the ELN with in the Chemistry Department at University of Southampton
  • To learn the best ways of increasing uptake by encouraging research scientists to change their working practices
  • To gain insight into differences in working practices between university departments
  • To learn issues that arise when accessing an ELN remotely
  • Disseminate the learnings across the community

The ELN used is the E-WorkBook which was developed by IDBS who are based in Guildford in the UK (

The project is funded by JISC, and is six months long, starting in February 2012.  The principal investigator for the project is Dr Tim Dickens (Cambridge), with Prof. Richard Whitby (Southampton) as co-investigator.  Other members of the project team are Dr Gill Cooper, Dr Frank Lee, and Dr Brian Brooks.

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