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Electronic Research Notebooks


There are many different types of ERNs with varying cost. OneNote is one of the select free possibilities for ERNs. While OneNote is not designed to be an ERN, it can be used as one and it already exists within our IT infrastructure. 

Why OneNote?

There are many reasons to use OneNote as an ERN:

  • Digital Notebook
  • Gathers notes – handwritten or typed – drawings, screen clippings, images and audio content
  • Notes can be shared

OneNote is the nearest equivalent to a paper notebook:

  • It’s a note taking app, not a bespoke lab book but…it is flexible– it allows for different structures, different projects/groups/ways of working
  • Allows us to include data from a range of sources
  • Not prescriptive
  • Microsoft – so it should be well supported and have future longevity (unlike other smaller offerings)
  • Safe, compliant storage

Structure of an ERN in OneNote

Flow chart indicating how an ERN  can be structured. Various users are shown each with multiple notebooks, sections, pages, and subpages all under an overarching ERN. There is a hierarchy to the structure of a OneNote notebook – different levels of organization. The following chart shows that:

  • Each group member (shown with initials) can have multiple notebooks. 
  • Each notebook can be further divided into sections (tabs).
  • Each section can have multiple pages.

What Can You Do In OneNote?

There are many different things you can do in OneNote. This will be a quick overview. Refer to the OneNote Manual for screenshots and step by step instructions on how to use OneNote. 

  • Sections: Add a new section of your notebook for organization. You can also color code sections.
  • Pages: A page in OneNote is not like a word document; it is just like a sheet of paper you can write, draw and scribble on – anywhere within that page. You are not required to work top to bottom or left to right. It is an (almost) infinitely sized piece of ‘paper’ in which you can have whatever structure you like.
  • Relevant features include: 
    • Add text
    • Make tables
    • Insert images
    • Insert/attach files
    • Add links
    • Draw and annotate slides, notes and images
      • Be aware that the image and annotations or text are not ‘grouped’ so could become dissociated (especially if you move things around). Many find it easier - especially if you are labelling - to annotate in a different program, e.g. PowerPoint, and then insert the compound image.
    • To do lists and tags
    • Add time and date stamps
    • Audio
    • Table of contents
  • Note: Things don’t move out of the way/move down automatically, so make sure you add top to bottom (mostly) and that there’s enough space.

Sharing a Notebook

Who can see your lab book?

Your group leader and group members may be able to see your notebooks on the ELN – depending on the permissions you have enabled: read or read-write access to your notebooks. You can also share notebooks with people outside your group by share, invite people or sending a link.


Right click on a page and select show versions. This can tell you modifications/versions made with dates and authors. This can be really useful for collaborative notebooks and also for supervisors/PIs to add comments or check and sign-off.

Suggestions for Use as a Research Notebook

You need to find what works for you and your group but here are some suggestions on setting up an ERN.

  • Table of contents: You may wish to use hyperlinks to include a table of contents in your Notebook.
  • Project overview: You could include a project plan, timeline and to-do list, including thoughts and notes for manuscripts etc.
  • Protocols: You may find it useful to keep all protocols in one section/tab. You can have them written out in full or as file attachments or file printouts. 
  • Experimental Results: You can include methods and results in ‘experiment’ sections/tabs and pages, including screen snips of some results, graphs and images.
  • Data: Your data needs to be comprehensively recorded, timely and retrievable. Depending on the nature and size of data, there are a number of ways to input this in OneNote:
    • Attach a file or file printout – OK for smaller files (<19MB) If you amend the original file, it doesn't update. This is like sticking in a physical copy into a paper notebook
    • You can add a link to a file - but if this file moves then the link will no longer work
    • With bigger datasets such as sequencing or imaging, you can link to the file store - these have their own storage and archiving systems and will be maintained
    • Create a non-dynamic link referencing a storage location using copy as path "O:\Training\One Note\test PDF.pdf"  
    • Use screen shots to document what you've done.

Attribution and Creative Commons License

"OneNote as an ERN" is a derivative of the Using OneNote as an Electronic Laboratory Notebook, licensed Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0, by Jo Montgomery

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) This page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.