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Product Focus: Electronic Lab Notebooks

“Informatics convergence” has become a buzzword among ELN vendors and their customers.

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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Data System Integration, But Slow Adoption by Small Labs

“Informatics convergence” has become a buzzword among ELN vendors and their customers. According to Steven Eaton, marketing manager for chemical analysis and informatics at Waters Corporation (Milford, MA), convergence encompasses an information environment in which the ELN is one component. Waters, for example, positions its ELN as part of its platform SDMS (scientific data management system).

“ELNs are not just replacements for paper notebooks, but facilitators that close the electronic gaps between and among data systems,” says Mr. Eaton.

Another noteworthy trend is the expansion of traditional ELN functions, particularly with respect to inventorying and sample management— competencies normally associated with laboratory information management systems (LIMS).

Integration has become critical for QA/QC. Pharmaceutical QC testing involves 40 manual transcriptions of instrument data. “With an error rate of between three and five percent, almost every record contains an error,” Mr. Eaton observes. By reading data directly from instruments, ELNs eliminate errors and costly retesting while streamlining data review.

One characteristic that ELNs have maintained over the years is application- specificity. “There is no one-size-fits-all ELN,” says Mr. Eaton, “and I doubt that we’ll ever see one that serves quality, biology, and chemistry workflows.”

John Newtown of LabWare (Wilmington, DE) views centralization and consolidation of laboratory data systems as an essential and inevitable consequence of the complexity of the data that labs generate and the systems employed to manage that information. Some companies use LIMS in one lab, an ELN in a second lab, and more conventional data capture in others. “Customers are demanding consolidation while emphasizing centralization and reuse of data,” he says. “The trend is definitely fewer systems, not more, and simplification through harmonization and centralization.”

Within LabWare’s hierarchy, LIMS serve as the backbone for the enterprise laboratory platform (ELP), which includes LIMS for sample management, an ELN for data entry, and an SDMS for data capture. Of these, the ELN is the user interface.

Small lab dilemmas

According to a study by Atrium Research, just 4 percent of academic labs have adopted ELNs. Of adopters, 60 percent are chemistry labs, which lately have been urged by industry to adopt ELNs.

Why is there such low penetration at universities? Cost, inertia, and information technology complexity all come into play. To these issues, Prof. Jerry Wright of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine adds scaling capabilities, user interface, customization, control of data sharing, image management, version control, and electronic signatures.

Academic labs do not feel the same kinds of productivity pressures as industry. Atrium cites a 20 percent improvement in throughput for ELN users, which is significant for high overhead industries. But faced with productivity bottlenecks, academics tend simply to work longer hours. Similarly, intellectual property protection, data verification, and validation are paramount in industry (particularly regulated ones) but of far less significance at schools.

While adapting ELNs to small research labs has been challenging, Web-based ELNs appear to suit academic laboratories particularly well. But even then, coaxing “temporary workers” to use them is difficult. A post-doc may spend one or two years in a lab, during which time he or she expects to publish several papers. “When you have one year to accomplish everything, detailed record keeping gets in the way,” says Dr. Wright. Given the choice between experimentation and learning a new software system, most researchers will select the former.

The temptation to stick with tried-and- true data recording can be overwhelming. “Biologists believe in the spreadsheets they design and the paper notebooks they are accustomed to. If they can’t figure out a software package in 30 seconds or less, they tend to go back to what they were using. But eventually they leave the lab—and leave behind them spreadsheets and other records with cryptic scribblings in the margins.”

While pharmaceutical companies have begun to push for ELN adoption in academic groups, today’s brutal funding environment prohibits expenditures on what are viewed as noncore activities. Prof. Wright believes that widespread deployment in small, nonprofit laboratories will not occur until a combination of industry and vendors provides ELNs gratis or at greatly reduced cost.

Paul Plummer, DVM, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine (Ames, IA), and his nine-person research group have used an ELN for about a year. The product they selected is eCAT, a Web-based ELN from Axiope (Edinburgh, Scotland) that combines scalability, value, and ease of use. Dr. Plummer decided on eCAT after evaluating more-costly ELNs targeted to industry.

eCAT runs off a server in Plummer’s work area, and entries are backed up at two remote locations to avoid catastrophic data loss. “One of my colleagues had a lab fire and lost four paper notebooks,” he notes.

His group members have adjusted to electronic note-taking surprisingly well. “For some, this was their experience with a lab notebook.” Experienced group members accustomed to paper notebooks required a period of acclimation, however. “That being said, all of us appreciate the search option functions, linking to files, and consistent data collection.”

Checking up on group members is critical for academic groups. Through eCAT, Prof. Plummer can check on daily data entries, even when at home or overseas.

“I can easily access data and provide input, even midstream. In some cases, this has saved me a significant amount of money in terms of stopping or modifying experiments in progress.”

Last autumn, when he was in Japan delivering a talk, Prof. Plummer was able to retrieve a photograph he had forgotten to bring by accessing his group’s ELN. Axiope is working on an iPad app that will allow even more portable access. “I can’t wait to see it!” Plummer gushes.

Angelo DePalma holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and has worked in the pharmaceutical industry. You can reach him at