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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9 Responses to “Blog: How to use onenote as your electronic lab book

  • Kyle Hillegass
    5 years 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?


  • Spent a bunch of time in academia and industry. I used OneNote as ELN for the past year but I’m transitioning away. There are 2 big issues (for me) in OneNote:
    – Search bug. Every once in a while you need to blow away the search index and re-do it. It’s not obvious when it fails other than it can’t find what you KNOW is there. It still isn’t fixed in 2016 and the issue is well documented
    – Time/date stamps. Easy to use, easy to modify which means it requires a lot of effort for me to prove something in court (i.e. for patent issues).

    The alternatives that I prefer better:
    – EssentialPIM : Not free form but inexpensive (free in some versions) and has pretty much all the same functionality. The data is stored in Firebird database so in theory you can always recover the data without any proprietary tools
    – IBM/Lotus Notes : A lot of people will hate me for mentioning this but the Journal database is wonderful. It is not free form, but very easy to use, just like any word processor. Easy to categorize and tag items and you can even cross-reference your emails if you use Notes for that as well. In addition, it will take massive attachements and capable of indexing within PDF’s and Word documents. This means I can drag all my research papers right into the database and it acts like a full-text search of all the papers I’ve got on hand. It also means that I can copy the entire file onto USB stick for backup very easily. Everything, logbook and copies of all papers. You can get really fancy with a Domino server and have everything online, but even without a server, it’s easy to turn on the web page functionality and access the notebook from another computer within your network via browser. The Notes database has been proven over many decades. All entries automatically has create/modified time stamps that you cannot easily modify and you can even turn on logging which will log WHO did WHAT and WHEN to the entries.

    • Thanks for your valuable comment! Completely agree with the time/date stamp issue of OneNote, it would unlikely hold up as a prove in court. I do an index reset once a year, it’s certainly helps. Your suggestion of IBM Notes is certainly interesting and sounds like covering pretty much all ELN needs, but not being readily available for anyone will remain a hurdle.

  • Brandon Hall
    4 years ago

    I introduced OneNote to our lab to use as an ELN (moving away from paper) but the issue is the timestamp would likely not hold up in court, as stated above. DO you know a work around or if there is a macro or anything like that where the time can be stamped but not altered, maybe unless the page was deleted? Just curious. Thanks much!

  • I am currently working on transitioning one of our labs to OneNote as a temporary ELN. On the whole, it seems very flexible and my initial users seem pleased. One thing they have brought up time and again is that they are not able to sync embedded spreadsheets in OneNote. We create a page and insert or attach a spreadsheet with calculations at our desks. We will then go to the lab and use an iPad to take notes. If we did need to edit a spreadsheet, those changes are not visible face up in OneNote and isn’t visible at all on the Desktop version. Have you encountered anything like this and what was your workaround?

  • Mrs CMJ
    3 years ago

    I set up OneNote to use as an ELN in our labs with your templates, everyone loved it, brilliant. Microsoft did an update. Export to PDF function now no longer exists in the Windows version! That was the only way for us to make it meet the regulations was to do a monthly export, sign and lock.
    Have you come across this problem? Is there a way around it?

    • Unfortunately the only workaround I know of is to print, and select a PDF printing option. This will remove any codes from internal links, but at least you still get a PDF version. Hope this helps!

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