Blog: Challenges and solutions for migrating your lab to OneNote

After writing about how to use OneNote as an electronic lab book, we have migrated our lab group from paper notes to OneNote over the last year. I want to share our experience so far, with the challenges and solutions we’ve come up.

First up, we’ve had a mixed combination of existing lab book styles from entirely paper-only, paper & word-file combinations, to paper & OneNote and finally OneNote only. Furthermore, some team members use Mac OS and others Windows. Finally, we have short-term internship students, one-year Honours students, PhD students, postdocs, research assistants and the lab head working on individual and team projects.

Consequently, our challenges were (and partially still are):

  1. Individual transition process paper -> electronic
  2. Notebook storage & Access control
  3. Consistency & Responsibility
  4. Too many notebooks
  5. Sustainability

Some comments on each of these aspects, but feel free to get in touch if you want to know more details.

  1. User transition

It was important to understand the exact individual notes work flow of each user, particularly for paper-only group members. Following individual OneNote training to show the capabilities and limitations, we made OneNote available in every lab space and assisted with integrating the office printers & scanners (email paper notes to OneNote). Setting up of calendar pages (page/week or page/day) helped for similar chronological note taking as in paper lab books, as well as customised tags, protocol templates and image integration.

  1. Storage & Access

Only the full Windows Office version of OneNote can handle local network notebooks, so online storage on was the only suitable solution. The leader of each project starts the project notebook and invites relevant team members and the lab head. Separate notebooks were created for short term students to ensure adequate access control, which is not easily possible in shared notebooks. Project leaders or student supervisors are responsible for maintaining offline backups.

  1. Responsibility

Project leaders or student supervisors regularly check recent edits to establish the habit of timely updates and exhaustive entries. Entries by members are also automatically labelled and time-stamped, allowing easy follow-up if questions arise. Old paper books have never made it into OneNote, but new projects are kept entirely digital. Since the level of detail in notes can vary, using templates can help to overcome this problem.

  1. Too many notebooks

We initially created books for each small and large project, paper, revision experiments etc., but quickly realised that this is more confusing than worthwhile. We now have fewer books with more section groups, which keeps the notebook list easier to navigate. Individual books for each student and team books for shared project and general details is working ok.

  1. Sustainability

The benefit of paper notebooks, always available and readable in the lab head office, becomes more of an issue with off-site online notebooks. We therefore export notebooks as single-file OneNote package (for future use) and complete PDF version (for cross-platform, vendor-independent access) throughout a projects lifetime and after the final entry.

Tools that have helped us along the way: Office Lens (to ensure documents & notes are easily included) and Onetastic for handling of integrated images, calendar function and other useful macros.

Not every thing is running smoothly yet, but with every new lab member starting on OneNote right away, transition problems are becoming less and less an issue.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 Responses to “Blog: Challenges and solutions for migrating your lab to OneNote

  • Nice work!
    We have used OneNote based ELNs for almost 5 years now and the transition was very smooth. After three months no scientist and no technician wanted to go back to paper.
    The number of notebooks is indeed critical. We have one per scientist (write for each user, read only for other lab-members), one for the lab (write for all lab-members), and one for guests (write anybody from the institute). For individual user based lab notebooks each year is one tab and we add extra tabs for projects, meetings, and special/individual needs.
    Hope things continue to go smoothly for your lab.
    All the best,

  • Manuel Pereira
    4 years ago

    What a great post. I will try to implement this in my lab work. Can you provide a template?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *