Peter Boogaard and Patrick Pijanowski argue that companies need to be clear about what they require from laboratory informatics if they are to make the right choice of system
What is an Electronic Laboratory Notebook (ELN)? What function does it serve? Where does it fit within my laboratory informatics strategy? Do we need an ELN, and if so what would be best for my company’s needs? When should I use an ELN, or a LIMS or both? These are all large questions, and unfortunately, they are being asked with increasing frequency due to a lack of clarity in the market.
In its simplest form, an Electronic Laboratory Notebook can be thought of as for an electronic embodiment of what is currently being done in a paper laboratory notebook. It is a tool that facilitates the workflows that play out in a particular laboratory. Having said that, Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS), Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELN) and Lab Execution Systems (LES) all fulfil this basic requirement, to a greater or lesser extent, as they exist within various laboratory environments. So what’s the difference between these applications?
To start, the majority of publications comparing ELN, LES or LIMS are product centric. Would it not be more appropriate to start with the end user in mind and look at the application from a user-centric perspective?
Let’s begin with the perspective of a researcher. The researcher should be able to record scientific data, make observations, describe procedures, include images, drawings and diagrams and collaborate with others to find new chemical compounds, biological structures, etc., without any limitation. In a research environment, workflows are often methodical but unscripted, and qualitative characteristics are often the most important. Complex chemical and biological searches and cloning experiments significantly increase research efficiency of a scientist. Intellectual property protection needs to be well implemented to support legal departments, and to assure protection of new inventions as corporate assets. Audit-trail features such as time/date stamps and user authentication are a must in this regard. Researchers like to be in the laboratory where the experiments are performed. It is no surprise that mobile computing platforms such as iPad’s and other tablet devices are popular form factors. Because researchers tend to want to evolve and adapt relatively easily, the software and hardware platforms that support them should quickly adapt as well. Thus, for the researcher an ideal research ELN is one that provides the most flexibility and freedom – a blank page that allows the researcher to do anything that they would in a paper notebook, while adding the benefits inherent to an electronic medium including the ability to collaborate without boundaries.
For the laboratory analyst, the requirements for an electronic laboratory notebook are quite different. In labs where a routine sample-processing paradigm dominates, workflows are more repeatable and data are often much more structured and quantitative. Analysts, therefore, need a structured and robust platform to ensure that proper procedures are followed, that the progression of samples through the lab is tracked, and that discrete measurement data are captured and reported reliably. Analytical services and quality control laboratories frequently deploy systems to automate high-volume workflows and to ensure compliance. In addition, many of the same needs and characteristics hold true for analysts working in core sequencing and genotyping laboratories that support R&D. clinical diagnostics labs, and the like. Traditionally, in these laboratories LIMS has been very successful. In recent years, however, another category of ELN has emerged and is gaining significant popularity. This category of ELN products is often referred to as Laboratory Execution Systems (LES), and they range in functionality from simple to quite complex. These LES products are designed to support the analyst’s daily workflows in a natural language form, and typically provide the analyst with a User Interface (UI) that closely resembles existing laboratory worksheets and/or Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Ultimately, whether they appear as electronic laboratory worksheets augmenting LIMS functionality, or as standalone applications, the LES category of ELN products serve the laboratory analyst by guiding them through reproducible workflows, managing the associated data, and helping to ensure compliance.
Clearly, ELNs mean many different things to many people throughout an organisation. So how to decide what kind of tools are right? The key lies in developing an objective and un-biased view of your needs and the options available to you, and a disciplined approach to decision-making.
Understand the needs of the users and business processes to be served – As discussed above, there are legitimate and fundamental differences in the way various user communities operate. As with so many things in life, there are no free lunches, and making a wise decision about which ELN or LIMS platform might be right for your organisation requires that you invest the necessary time and effort. Opting for the shortcut of developing a preliminary set of requirements and floating them out to a host of vendors via an RFP process will inevitably produce a confusing set of responses and a questionable result. Furthermore, pushing out the development of detailed requirements until after you have selected a vendor exposes you to a significant risk of making your needs conform to the tool. Performing this work with a technology-agnostic and vendor-agnostic perspective, and prior to vendor selection is the foundation of your future success.
Match your needs with the products under consideration – Given the user communities and business functions to be served, and the justifiable gaps in your application portfolio, you will then need to consider what type of ELN product best matches your requirements. The table below compares and contrasts the various types of ELN products versus a more traditional LIMS platform.
Research ELNLESLIMSWhere in use
Chemistry & Biology
R & D
Analytical Testing laboratoriesAnalytical Testing laboratoriesMain purpose
Intellectual Property Protection
Secured laboratory information hub
Typical IT infrastructure
Application behaviourExperiment centricSample/Process centricSample/Process centricUser Interface behavior
Free form & Adaptable
System definedRelated ApplicationsScientific databasesLIMS, ERP, InstrumentsLES, ERP, MES, CAPAEnd user adoptionHighHighMixedLicensing models
Consider your existing application landscape – Very seldom does a company have the luxury of starting with a clean slate when it comes to making an ELN decision. Due to the prevalence of Merger and Acquisition activity today, the need to rationalise your portfolio of applications in a holistic manner will almost inevitably be an essential part of your decision-making process. In today’s world, the cost/benefit analysis frequently needs to be done in a way that considers the functionality already being provided by legacy applications, and business justifications need to be based upon providing transformational benefits to the organisation. The benefits of creating a consolidated and more integrated informatics portfolio must be weighed carefully and objectively against the merits of adding another best-in-breed application.
It is important that companies refuse to be limited by conventional thinking and to consider all their options openly. Today’s global markets offer companies many choices. Whether you do the work yourself, or you retain an independent third-party consultancy to assist you, approaching your ELN decisions with a solid understanding of the available products and how well they match your needs is critical to your success. After all, ‘ELNs mean many things to many people’, the one you choose should be the right one for your organisation.
Peter Boogaard is the founder of Industrial Lab Automation, an independent consulting firm that provides management services to address harmonization, integration and consolidation of business processes in Life Science development and manufacturing. www.iLabAutomation.com
Patrick Pijanowski currently serves as the Partner responsible for the R&D Informatics Practice within LabAnswer, North America’s largest independent laboratory informatics consultancy. www.labanswer.com