Skip to content Skip to main navigation Skip to footer

WordPress Electronic Lab Notebooks

Democratizing Research with a S.A.F.E. Approach

Check Out the New Demo!

Please check out our new demo of a Free WordPress ELN. We include files to make a clone for yourself as well.

For the past 20 years WordPress has helped democratize digital publication on the world-wide web, using “democratize” here in the sense of “making something accessible to everyone”. And for the last few decades Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs) have helped advance research by bringing the benefits of digital transformation to the lab. These two advancements can now be brought together. WordPress can now be transformed into an ELN that is good enough for many research labs and research projects. A WordPress ELN also has the fairly unique advantage of being Sustainable, Affordable, Flexible, and Easy (abbreviated as S.A.F.E). Therefore, similar to the way that WordPress has helped democratize digital publication, WordPress ELNs can now be used to help democratize research labs and research projects.

The purpose of this website is to provide information about the use of WordPress as an ELN. We present strengths (see below) and weaknesses of a WordPress ELN, document some best practices, and provide some community features for discussing issues. These resources should help you discern if a WordPress ELN is appropriate for your lab or research project and also provide some guidance for the process of building a WordPress ELN.

Some High Level Reasons to Consider WordPress for an ELN

WordPress is Often a Good Enough Solution

WordPress was released in 2003 as a simple Content Management System (CMS) primarily for blogging. It has matured since then and now runs over 40% of the sites on the web. With this maturity, WordPress has gained many features that can be useful for an Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN). With appropriate understanding of the platform, WordPress can be set up to develop and manage research protocols, collect and manage many types of data, and perform basic statistical analysis and graphing of research results. For many research projects, this is all that is needed (or even more than is needed) for an ELN. Because this approach is a low cost and relatively easy solution for an ELN, many more researchers and labs can now enjoy the advantages of a capable digital platform for research.

WordPress Can Often Be a Better Solution

Because of its maturity as a web platform, WordPress may be a better choice for an ELN because it offers features that are not available with perhaps any other ELN. These features include ease of installation, excellent economics, numerous options for hosting and support, a vast ecosystem of documentation, and tens of thousands of free plugin extensions for customization. These features are often not considered in requirements for an ELN. But if a WordPress ELN can meet the technical requirements for a given research project, then these additional features can provide significant benefits in terms of Sustainability, Affordability, Flexibility, and Ease of setup, maintenance, and user interaction (what we call the S.A.F.E. attributes)

WordPress Has a Unique Advantage

Also, WordPress gives you the unique ability to easily clone and transfer your entire ELN to another computer or hosting provider. Most ELNs do not even offer this capability of making an exact copy of your research platform that can be used on another computer or hosting provider of your choice. And for the few open source ELNs that could offer this capability, none of them can match the tools and ease with which cloning can be done with WordPress. And for many research projects that are dependent on grant funding, this ability to easily clone your ELN could mean the difference between keeping or losing access to your familiar research platform and possibly even your data after your grant ends. Combining this with the long-term sustainability due to its large market share, this unique advantage of WordPress of being easily cloned becomes even more valuable. 

A WordPress ELN is Modular

With a WordPress ELN, you can include only what is needed for your particular research scenario. Do you need a Learning Management System? There are over 20 to choose from, many of them free or using a freemium marketing model. It is similar for features like social networking or displays for your data using maps, directories, graphs, plots, data grids, images, or videos. Multiple different form builders allow you to create your own custom protocols. Other plugins let you export and import your data . You have the freedom to include only what you need and not clutter your ELN with features that you don’t need at the time. Later you can add more features using additional plugins as needed. From what we can tell, this modularity is fairly unique compared to any other free or proprietary ELN. 

Some Analogies May Be Helpful

There are several analogies that might be helpful when thinking about using WordPress for an ELN. WordPress was originally developed as an open source content management system (CMS) for blogging and is now used for eCommerce as well. Can we now leverage the improvements made for personal blogging or eCommerce to help with our research endeavors? Has it happened before that technologies originally developed for one area have been successfully re-purposed for other areas as well? No analogy is perfect, but there could be some parallels with the following developments that have also moved in the direction of democratizing technology and/or making it available for research.

The Following ELN Features are Already Available with WordPress

Additional plugins (often free) are usually required to implement some of these features

Different Field Types

Use various field types to accommodate different data collection scenarios
It is very valuable for an ELN to accept different data types to accommodate the varying data collection needs of research. In a basic WordPress installation you have the ability to save plain text or rich text (HTML) data from a WYSIWYG editor. With additional plugins (most of them free) you can add fields for numbers (integers or decimals), dates, times, taxonomy values, color values, binary values, currencies, emails, URLs, phone numbers, addresses, geo-locations, passwords, and ratings. Of course many of these field types boil down to either text or numbers, but the advantage of field types is that you can have validation included that the field value will meet certain criteria (e.g., the correct number of digits for phone numbers).

Different Widgets and Layouts for Data Collection Forms

Utilize a vast array of standard interface widgets, custom widgets, and form layout controls

WordPress has the standard data collection widgets like checkboxes, drop-down boxes, radio buttons, text input fields, integer input fields, and WYSIWYG editors. In addition, WordPress offers customized widgets like number sliders, editable tables, and rating stars. There are also sophisticated layout controls and widgets that help you to create more user friendly forms for data collection, data management, and analysis. The new approach that uses Gutenberg and similar plugins like Elementor provides WordPress owners an easy drag and drop interface for adding numerous different types of custom widgets and layout controls to their pages and forms.

File uploads

Standard files as well as domain specific files can be uploaded

The standard type of files like documents, text files, spreadsheets, images, video, or audio can be uploaded to a WordPress ELN. Because text, binary, and image files can be uploaded then domain specific files like DNA sequences or chemical structures can be uploaded as well. A media manager is included in every core WordPress installation. There are also plugins available for specialized functions such as minimizing image sizes or altering or editing images. 

Data Export and Import

Data export and import can utilize a wide variety of formats

WordPress has the ability to import and export data in multiple formats – CSV, Excel, XML, Binary, and more – by using various plugins. Plugins also often have filtering capabilities so that they export only certain fields of your data or, alternatively, they can export entire data sets. Many of the export and import capabilities are included in plugins for tables, data grids, and directories.

WordPress can often provide more control, flexibility, and safety for your data than most commercial ELN offerings.

Data Management

Interface widgets like data grids, directories, and file trees simplify data management

WordPress was originally developed in the context of blogging and content management for websites. It later expanded into being used for eCommerce with stores and inventory management. So, most of the data management tools were developed with those use cases in mind. Depending on the research data scenarios, these tools may be adequate for scientific data management as well (similar to how Microsoft Word can be adequate for writing papers or book chapters). 

Plugins for data management in WordPress include tables, data grids, directories, and file trees. In addition, the core WordPress installation includes a media manager for images and other binary files. 

Data Analysis and Graphing Tools

Statistical and graphing plugins are available for data analysis, plots, and graphs

PHP has some statistical analysis libraries like Math-PHP that can be used for basic data analysis. In addition, WordPress has numerous plugins specifically for graphs and plots. There are also graphing and plotting capabilities included with other plugins, for example with some plugins for forms or tables. As with many situations in WordPress it is important to determine what type of data you want to collect, how you want to collect, store, and manage the data, and what type of plotting and graphing functionality you would like to have. This analysis will help you narrow down which option to choose out of the many options available to you with the WordPress plugins. 

The Advantages Listed Below are Non-Existent or Rare with Other ELNs

Benefit From the Unique Ability of WordPress to Be Easily Cloned

You Can Always Take Your ELN with You - Both Your Data and the Software that Manages It

Because of the long history and popularity of WordPress, many plugins and services have been created that let you easily clone your entire WordPress ELN and move it to a different server or hosting provider. The ease of making a clone of your WordPress ELN goes a step beyond any other ELN to our knowledge. Other ELNs may offer some data export features. But with other ELNs if you ever need to move to a different ELN platform (e.g., for funding reasons) then you will still be faced with importing the data into a new platform and then becoming familiar with a new platform.

With a WordPress ELN, you can use the clonability features to easily move your ELN to a different low cost hosting provider or to your own servers at any time. A WordPress ELN does not usually require an expensive computer – oftentimes a spare computer in your lab will work just fine. With the proper expertise, you can then take advantage of your low cost platform and maintain your familiarity with your research software – no new learning curve. A WordPress ELN provides a unique level of stability and sustainability compared to all other ELNs. 

Build on a Stable and Sustainable Platform

Feel Confident That Your WordPress Research Platform Will Be Supported for a Long Time

Ever since WordPress was released in 2003, its market share has continued to grow. It is now the most widely used content management system by a large margin, used in over 40% of the sites on today’s web. WordPress is now to the point of utilizing both economies of scale and network effects that would suggest a very strong future. This can provide a peace of mind that is not available with most other ELNs. As was mentioned in this excellent overview of ELNs, a reasonable assumption when choosing an ELN is to determine whether it will be viable for the next 5 years. This is corroborated by a recent Nature article that stated average code base lifetimes are 6 +/- 4.4 years and 7 +/- 4.4 years for open source and proprietary ELN codebases, respectively. However, you can be confident that a platform built on WordPress will be supported for many years (and probably decades) to come and most likely will only grow in its capabilities. So, if your ELN needs can be adequately met with WordPress features, then it is certainly one of the safest options that you have for a stable and sustainable platform for your long term research or educational projects. 

Completely Own Your Data

Always Have Access to Your Data Along with Numerous Formatting Options

The heart of an Electronic Lab Notebook is the data and metadata that it contains. Most ELN hosting providers do an excellent job at keeping your data safe and secure – as long as you are their customer. But oftentimes even as their customer, your raw data is not easily exported or is only available in limiting formats like PDF files. Even for open source ELNs, hosting providers sometimes limit what data is easily available or in what format it is available. On the other hand, with WordPress, there are numerous plugin extensions that give you the ability to export your raw data in a variety of different formats. In many cases, you can even set up web services for your data so that you can directly consume your data from other applications. 

Have Freedom to Migrate to Different Hosts with Ease

Get Unparalleled Ease of Migration and Extensive Hosting Options

Because WordPress powers over 40% of the websites on the internet, most hosting providers offer packages specifically for WordPress. These packages range from simple websites up through sophisticated networks of websites. With appropriate understanding these WordPress packages can be used for ELNs as well. WordPress also has numerous plugins for making it easy to migrate your complete WordPress site between hosting providers or to self-hosted servers. These migration plugins have extensive documentation and community support 

This contrasts with proprietary ELNs that are locked to one vendor and cannot be migrated. And even for the small number of open source ELNs, there is usually one primary hosting provider. Most (if not all) of these hosting providers are not set up for easy migration of your ELN to a different server. Also, most open source ELNs use the Java or Ruby programming language that require sophisticated IT services to maintain (the exception is the eLabFTW ELN which uses PHP). So, for easy migration of your ELN platform to a different hosting provider or to your own computer or to the servers of your institution, the most robust solution by far is the use of a WordPress ELN. 

Minimize Costs By Using Low Cost Hosting Providers

DIY Allows You to Use One of the Many Inexpensive Hosting Services

The ubiquity and simplicity of WordPress has led to a multitude of inexpensive hosting providers. So, if you can hire the necessary expertise or build the expertise within your team that is necessary to manage your own WordPress ELN, then you can take advantage of the low hosting prices for WordPress. And building this expertise is not very difficult, given the ubiquity of WordPress resources, tutorials, and agencies. Utilizing this option could make a significant difference concerning the long-term viability of your research platform and data. 

Get Support from Free or Paid Community Services

Feel Secure in Having Support Available from a Large and Friendly Community

Given the large market share of WordPress there are numerous websites, books, blogs, tutorials, source code repositories, videos, and other resources for information about WordPress. There are also many professional agencies that support and develop custom WordPress sites. This is in contrast to all other ELNs that, to our knowledge, have just one source for support and community. Of course, the difference here is that an ELN support team will often be more familiar with your type of research and can often provide more specific advice for questions. On the other hand, with WordPress you will have many more resources to take advantage of when it comes to the technical aspects of the WordPress ELN and its upkeep and modifications. As the use of WordPress ELNs grow, there should also be more resources applicable to your type of research in relation to appropriate WordPress features. 

Add a Learning Management System

If You Need to Educate Your Researchers in Any Way, an LMS Optimizes Learning

A Learning Management System (LMS) can provide an instructor with a way to create and deliver content, monitor student participation, and assess student performance. It might also provide students with interactive features, such as threaded discussions, video conferencing and discussion forums. Even in a non-academic setting, a LMS can provide a common knowledgebase for researchers. There are quite a few capable LMS options for WordPress, with varying price points.

Add a Social Network

Make the Communication Between Your Researchers Easy and Flexible

Most ELNs were not built with social networking as a high priority. However, as social networking applications become more common, it make good sense in many cases to utilize social networking features within the context of an ELN. WordPress social networking plugins can help  researchers improve communication because of their ease of use and familiarity. And improved communication can often lead to greater productivity. 

Easily Integrate Media of All Types

Display Your Media in Ways Most Meaningful for Your Research

Because WordPress is widely used on the web, it has a wide range of plugins for displaying, organizing, and sharing media of all types. This includes video, images, and sound files. Depending on the type of research being performed, the appropriate display of media can be very beneficial in for better analysis and understanding. WordPress provides more optimal ways to display and interact with media. 

Add Maps and Geolocation Data

WordPress offers Mapping Capabilities, which is Not Available with Most Other ELNs

Maps are not a common feature of most ELNs, either open source or proprietary. There are numerous WordPress plugins for geolocation and mapping capabilities however. And for many research scenarios the use of geolocations and maps can prove very useful. Some of the areas where maps can be critically useful include animal migration, phylogeography, climate change, epidemiology, and geology. 

Attach Public Websites

Provide a Public View of Your Data or Project Information

In many cases, a research project needs not only the ELN features for collecting and analyzing data but also needs a public face to showcase summaries of the research. Of course, the creation of public websites is the specialty of WordPress, so it provides an excellent solution. Depending on the given situation, you may want to fully integrate your public website with your ELN or to separate them for security reasons.

Easily Increase the Number of Users for Little to No Cost

With appropriate hardware, scale up users easily and quickly

WordPress itself does not have a limit to the number of users. The major constraints arise from any limitations of the computer or server running WordPress and the manpower to manage the user requests. And especially with plugins like BuddyPress or BuddyBoss that are set up for social networking, additional users can be easily integrated into an ELN with minimal additional support needed. 

Easily Adapt Your ELN for Other Locales

The WordPress interface is available in over 70 languages

Because of its popularity, the WordPress interface has been translated to more than 70 languages that cover every continent on the planet. There are also numerous mature plugins that help you to translate any original content to a different language. 

Extend Your ELN with More Custom Features

Choose from Thousands of Additional Features or Build Your Own

There are over 50,000 free plugins available for WordPress and thousands of additional premium plugins that provide more features for your ELN. It is also straightforward to create your own custom plugins. Because of the popularity of WordPress, there are numerous books, videos, blogs, and open source examples about WordPress customizations and plugins.

Utilize Features that are Designed for Mobile Platforms

Optimize the experience on mobile platforms if that is important to you

Several vendors for WordPress plugins have created customizations that are targeted for making the website interact well on mobile devices. For example, the Buddy Boss social networking plugin has a separate application that is optimized for display on mobile devices