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Looking towards the laboratories of the future

Jana Erjavec wonders why researchers are slow to adopt software for electronic laboratory notebooks.

I have had an opportunity to visit several life sciences trade shows and conferences in the past few months. There were vendors selling lab equipment, software, and consumables. There were visitors from pharma, CROs, university professors, students and lab managers. I was particularly interested to hear what people were saying about scientific software – specifically, electronic lab notebook (ELN) systems. How do they think laboratories will change in the near or not so near future. Which are the buzzwords we should pay attention to?

The latest trends in life sciences include interoperability, data integrity, software as a platform and the internet of things. There are big companies announcing joint projects, forming consortia and shaping new software standards with other big companies. Small companies are trying to differentiate themselves and, at the same time, offer new ideas that will follow the same common goal. However, everyone is forgetting one important fact.

According to our latest market research which included more than 500 laboratories, only eight per cent of researchers are using ELNs in their everyday laboratory routine. And there are more than 60 ELNs on the market! It is much too early to throw around the big words if we have not mastered the basics yet. We asked ourselves, why are researchers so slow in adapting ELN software?

Firstly, researchers are not very inclined to change their existing working habits. They are still attached to the paper notebooks and that despite that they are using all kinds of apps in their daily lives, they still find paper as the best solution for the work at the bench. The second barrier is the budget. The cost of licenses and support for proprietary software, LIMS or ELN, ranges from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of US dollars – which means that most academic institutions and smaller institutes cannot afford it. To overcome this, some newer vendors already offer freemium options, giving them leverage over the older players on the market. The third reason lies in the software itself. How is it possible, that up until now there was no software that would meet researcher’s expectations?

Ease of use is crucial

When we asked researchers what they expect from an ELN, the answer was clear: ease of use.

Would you use Skype or any other software if it had numerous drop down menus and a requirement to click five times before you could call anyone? Of course not! Researchers want an ELN that would have the features they are familiar with from social media, phone apps or web apps they are using daily. They want to drag and drop files, take pictures and instantly upload them as results, they want to share the results with their colleagues, instantly create reports and easily search through the content.

Recently, a new concept has been introduced to the ELN market. sciNote is a free and open-source ELN that has been kick-started in mid-December 2015 and released in February 2016. sciNote successfully addresses the issues we have discussed above.

Everything within sciNote is time stamped, so full data traceability is guaranteed. You can also invite people to a project, assign tasks, add tags, checklists and comments, features that you are already familiar with from apps such as Facebook, Trello and Dropbox. It runs on Amazon cloud but if the institution policy requires installation on premises, it is also possible to install sciNote on a local server. Researchers can use it on their mobile devices and PCs.

This means if you are a principal investigator, you can instantly see the latest research results your colleagues have put into sciNote and contribute with your own results or comments. This significantly reduces the time needed for update meetings, which, according to the article The Biggest Time Wasters in Research can take approximately 35 per cent of the laboratory manager’s time. On the other hand, as a researcher you can take sciNote to your lab on a tablet or smartphone and finally get rid of paper protocols, sticky notes, printing, cutting and gluing. And most importantly, you will always be able to find your data!

Easier integration

Let's return those popular buzzwords. As opposed to proprietary software, open-source software is much easier to integrate with other software and laboratory instruments. Communities of scientists and software developers are constantly contributing new software, therefore assuring interoperability. Involving scientific community and encouraging it to develop new modules is a crucial step in making software flexible enough to be used in laboratories working in different scientific fields.

Laboratory equipment vendors are also realising the importance of interoperability and that laboratory devices of the future will all be part of the internet of things. Add-ons such as instrument integration modules, special application modules, and analyses modules all make it easier for instrument providers to connect their systems with open-source software. Just recently Gilson Inc. from Wisconsin, USA announced that all its devices (from manual pipettes to liquid handling robots) can now be connected to sciNote. In this way you can track your scientific protocols and results as well as control laboratory equipment and automatically collect the data generated.

At every event the feeling I got from the scientists was the same; everyone understands that there is too much data and that there should be systems in place for managing it, but it is difficult to start the procedure. Most people have never used an ELN system and do not know who to ask, or where to start. sciNote is a good starting point for anyone who is thinking about integrating an ELN, since it is it is really easy to pick up and is free.

When a majority of researchers are using an ELN, interoperability and everything else will follow. The willingness to change from the paper laboratory notebooks to an ELN will change the way we manage our scientific data. The ball is now on the side of the research community.

Jana Erjavec is product manager at BioSistemika

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