The consulting group Atrium Research defines an electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) as “a secure system that assembles content from multiple sources that are related to each other, allows for contextual annotation, and packages in a legally acceptable document [that] can be searched, mined, and collaborated.”
As a component of a lab’s information infrastructure, ELNs help laboratories capture and manage knowledge, streamline data management, protect intellectual property (IP), and, as a central repository, foster collaboration between and among groups and locations.
ELNs are not simply replacements for paper notebooks or the “savior” for every data management woe. Nor are they repositories for all data or even the final resting place for unstructured data such as emails. Atrium concludes that an ELN is not “going to make you more ‘productive’ all by itself.”
Non-specific or generic ELNs provide most of the benefits of electronic data capture and storage and work more or less efficiently in any lab environment. But “no vendor has best-in-class functionality across multiple domains,” according to Atrium CEO Michael Elliot.
Application- or task-specific ELNs, however, are experiencing the strongest growth. Atrium believes their popularity is due to higher user acceptance, more easily demonstrated return on investment, and their “disruptive” effect on lab operations; while generic ELNs compete directly against paper notebooks, specific ELNs do a lot more.
Both ELN types have their fans. As IT budgets are squeezed, companies comprising several laboratory types may decide on a one-stop solution to electronic record keeping. Specificity and some functionality are lost, but one product may perform well enough. Aside from cost, generic ELNs’ scalability offers installation and deployment advantages: one product, many labs or disciplines, and multiple functions. Benefits are more accessible if the ELN product integrates easily with existing instrumentation and information backbones
In a recently completed Lab Manager Magazine survey, respondents indicated that web-based and clientserver ELNs comprised nearly 70 percent of installations, and more than 60 percent of deployments served fewer than 25 lab workers. The three most cited benefits of ELNs were protecting IP (26 percent), streamlining documentation and reporting (21 percent), and having a centralized repository for data (16 percent). Interestingly, just 5 percent of respondents mentioned improved communication and workflow coordination as significant benefits.
That adopting electronic records involves a shift in how labs operate and interact with data is well known. Indeed training, buy-in from rank-andfile workers, integration with existing systems, and fear of obsolescence accounted for 60 percent of challenges cited by respondents. At the other end of the desirability spectrum, 29 percent of end users believed that an ELN package’s ability to provide remote or web access was “unimportant.” Similarly, a quarter of those surveyed were not concerned with technical considerations such as ease of installation, multiple platforms, or scalability.
Convergence of data and instrument systems has become the key trend in ELNs. Readers are aware of environments in which ELNs and laboratory information management systems “communicate.” But that’s not the limit of convergence, according to Michael Price, VP of sales at KineMatik (Princeton, NJ). “Linking ELNs with lab equipment for data pull/ push and creating synergies between other ‘technology solutions’ like quality management and clinical document management and enterprise resource Electronic Laboratory Notebooks Convergence of data, instrument systems June 2012 Lab Manager 53 planning systems will allow better decision-making about investment and disinvestment.”
ELNs built on potent collaboration platforms such as Sharepoint can enhance efficiency, productivity, and collaboration while providing inherent capabilities critical to regulated industries; for example, supporting secure capture, exchange, and management of data efficiently and cost-effectively.
“Any company invested in R&D will benefit from an ELN, particularly with implementation across a broad set of verticals,” Price says.
ELNs have passed the stage where users simply replace paper notebooks with a completely analogous electronic counterpart. “ELNs are more than just ‘sticker books,’” says Stuart Ward, Ph.D., product manager for E-Work- Book Suite at IDBS (Surrey, UK). Organizations are adopting ELNs through recognition of deliverables such as asset/sample management, data capture, graphing, and reporting. ELNs serve as researchers’ “single points of truth” and “essential collaboration hubs,” notes Ward. Within this context, ELNs provide a means of capturing and sharing diverse instrumentation data from, for example, chromatographs and weighing stations.
Within the collaboration model, ELNs also provide granular security that allows sharing some data within an organization or even outside the company, while protecting sensitive data within a group or company.
Not surprisingly, the most cited benefit of ELNs in our survey was the protection of IP. The America Invents Act of 2011 moves the United States to a “first to file” model that places a premium on data integration and reporting, a function well suited to ELNs. “It’s no longer sufficient to have a time stamp,” Dr. Ward observes. “You need to find and pull together useful information suitable for patent filing quicker than your competitors. That means you need a data system, not a sticker book.”
“Consolidation of IT software and a harmonization of processes to improve productivity tend to be the main drivers for ELN acquisition,” Dr. Ward tells Lab Manager Magazine. In today’s data-rich laboratories, no rationale exists for asking researchers to capture and consume scientific data in ways less sophisticated than those they use to consume music or social media. In addition to saving time, the aggregative power of an ELN should also reduce decision-making time.
But the key, Dr. Ward says, is software that does much more than simply capture documents or time stamp experiments. Researchers require a combination of simplicity and sophistication. Any modern ELN should allow capture and computation of a wide range of data, offer rapid search capabilities, and be able to serve multiple software platforms.
For additional resources on Electronic Laboratory Notebooks, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit http://www.labmanager.com/eln