Blog: How to use onenote as your electronic lab book


Using Microsoft onenote as your lab book leaves you in control of your content with full offline access while remaining flexible about devices, location and integrations, but consider the intellectual property and data storage requirements of your organisation.

*** Update: read about the experience of moving our lab group to OneNote during 2016 ***

When I started my first lab project as a research student/assistant at NeuroSearch I received an A5-sized notebook with the instruction to write all and every experiment detail, idea and thought process into it. After diligently filling dozen of pages I found myself spending increasingly more time looking for something I had written before and, new to the entire process of conducting experiments, adding details to previously filled pages. This started to become annoying and inefficient so I looked around for electronic lab notebook (ELN) alternatives.

The electronic option needed to fulfil the traditional & policy requirements and make full use of a modern laboratory work environment.

Almost a decade ago, there weren’t all that many options, nor much talk about how to maintain an electronic lab notebook. A handful of vendors with pricey options for the private sector, standard word processing tools like Microsoft Word and early versions of different note or journal programs like evernote and onenote. While the ELN sector has moved on to provide several new options (and I’ll get to them later), I am still following my decision from 2008, Microsoft onenote, for several reasons:

Requirements Paper book Onenote Guide / Example
record details of all steps performed and materials used Handwritten text and figures Keyboard or stylus input
record observations, results and analysis details Handwritten text, glued-in printouts Keyboard or stylus input, figures, images, spreadsheets, entire files Audio & Video recording in onenote
contain the train of thoughts behind experiments, following observations and during results analysis  √, limited space  √, can be added at any time at any place in the notebook
controlled access to the content Only one version, safe storage is easy Can be copied instantly elsewhere, access needs to be separately managed, build in password option too simplistic
Knowing which content was added when and limit further edits Content can be altered, but will likely leave traces Entries are time stamped, but can be endlessly edited Detailed description of onenote’s page versioningPDF workflow to prevent edits & protect IP
Identify the author of entries Initials or hand writing style Entries marked with user name Guide on using shared onenote notebooks
Extensive formatting (colours, text size, highlights, tables, lists, etc.) Stationary set Full range of formatting options from standard office suite, including tags for easy organization Tips on how to use onenote tags
Full text search, including from images – (index) Search across notes, sections & notebooks
Sharing/synchronisation across devices with little conflicts Photo copies Network shares, Sharepoint, Online
Integration of images, tables, graphs, etc. Glued-in printouts Copy and paste of images, screenshots, digital printouts, entire files  Add an excel sheet into onenote
Links to external content (e.g. journal articles, product pages) Written URL  Copy & Paste hyperlinks or content
Links to internal content (e.g. meeting notes & related experiments) Page Numbers  Create links to paragraphs, pages, sections, notebooks Hyperlinks in onenote
Re-using existing material (e.g. protocols) Glued-in photo copies  Copy & Paste, Templates Template instructions
Backup – (photo copies) Build-in version history, file backup with 3rd party solutions Freefilesync, Todo Backup Free


The main alternative back then for me was evernote, but I decided against it for several reasons, which still hold true today:

  • Everything is stored online if I want to use the notebook on more than one computer
  • Pages are structured top-down only, no free arranging of content
  • Text recognition across images only in online notebooks
  • Limited hierarchy for note organization
  • Limited access to notebook files
  • Many functions rely on the future of Evernote, while Onenote can run independent of Microsoft after initial purchase

New web based ELN alternatives have entered (and some already left) the market and I have tried almost all of them. Connected Researchers keeps an updated list of most current options and while some initially appeared very useful (e.g. sciNote, LabGuru and elabftw), none of them addressed my concerns convincingly: no full offline functionality nor full access to my files & entries. If I sit in a conference room with hundreds of people clogging the Wifi or I’m writing a paper on while travelling, I want the option of full read & write access to all my notes. Onenote syncronises them the next time I’m online, but it works offline exactly as well as online.

I thus continue to rely on onenote as ELN and have developed a trusted work-flow for it:

Integration of Onenote as electronic lab notebook into my experiment workflow

Onenote has, of course, evolved since I started using it, with the most useful new features being the full integration of excel spreadsheets in 2013 and the availability across different devices. Just keep in mind that the Mac, iOS, Android and Blackberry versions are not able to open local/network stored notebooks, and can only work with notebooks stored on microsoft servers (at no cost).

Over the last years, a few researchers have written about their ELN options, onenote and others, and I suggest to have a look at their examples for ideas and inspirations and what will fit best into your daily work.

The Postdoc experienceGradhackerThe Lab-o-MatorASCB (good usage tips for onenote); Penn StateBitesize bio (make sure to read the comments too). Also, Thomas Maurer has written an excellent up-to-date overview of the wide range of onenote functions: This is why Onenote is awsome.

And don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have questions, ideas or would like some advice on how to adopt onenote as ELN for you (including templates).

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One Response to “Blog: How to use onenote as your electronic lab book

  • Kyle Hillegass
    3 months ago


    I am interested in integrating a similarly structured ELN for the lab I currently work in. Would you be able to provide me with a template to reference?


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