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Product Focus: Electronic Laboratory Notebooks

Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELNs) play crucial roles in most kinds of science and much of the R&D in industry—from agrochemicals and cosmetics to food and beverage.

Mike May, PhD

Mike May is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas.

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How Low Can You Go?

To describe the electronic laboratory notebook (ELN) market, many people might use the word “expanding.” As Glyn Williams, vice president of product delivery at IDBS (Surrey, UK), says, “The range of people using ELNs is very broad indeed at the moment and growing.” He adds that medicinal chemists started the ELN trend, and biologists soon followed. Today, ELNs play crucial roles in most kinds of science and much of the R&D in industry—from agrochemicals and cosmetics to food and beverage.

A wide range of applications matches the breadth of ELN users. For example, some scientists use ELNs to capture IP, because a digital record shows what a scientist developed and when. According to Trish Meek, director of product strategy, life sciences at Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA), “ELNs are used in both life science and process industries and run the gamut from R&D applications like next-generation sequencing or catalysis development through procedural execution, though this is often done in the LIMS.”

Tweaking the technology

In some cases, in-house needs drive changes in ELNs. “Many users need software that reaches out to other systems to pull in information,” says Chris Stumpf, senior informatics product marketing manager at Waters (Milford, MA). “That cuts down on transcription errors.”

Companies also look to ELNs to make life easier in the lab or on production lines. “There’s a fair amount of Lean Six Sigma data on processes like how many mouse clicks it takes to perform a task,” says Stumpf. “Users hope to minimize inefficiency through software, and they see ELNs as a possibility in managing that.”

Outside requirements can also drive changes in ELN technology. For example, Stumpf says, “Today’s ELNs include a lot of Part 11 technical controls.” This refers to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)—specifically Title 21 CFR Part 11—that requires specific electronic document and data safeguards by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Some ELNs also include cloud-based features, but some industries seem to resist this approach. “It’s like the early days of the financial industry offering cloud-based solutions,” says Kim Shah, director of marketing and business development for informatics at Thermo Fisher Scientific. “People didn’t like that at first, questioning security issues, but they eventually came to the conclusion that it is as secure as anything else and they became comfortable with the security structure in place.” Cloud-based ELNs might follow a similar path to acceptance over time.

ROI as broad as the sky

The return on investment (ROI) of an ELN depends primarily on what matters to the user. Of course, capturing IP provides significant ROI in the pharmaceutical industry. For some users, even the paper saved by going to an ELN brings considerable ROI. As an extension of getting away from paper, ELNs also help some labs gain space because they won’t need large, fireproof containers to store paper notebooks.

Additionally, improvements in productivity cannot be ignored with ELNs. “They can save you three hours to a day a week to do other things,” says Williams. “The spreadsheet in our ELN cuts the time needed for analysis and generates reports more easily,” which really helps the end user. In addition, Williams points out that ELNs help lab managers see what their people are doing and enterprise-level staff can use information from ELNs to assess the status of specific projects.

To see where ELNs would do the most good, companies might need to spend some money to collect decision-making workflow metrics. Nonetheless, Stumpf points out that the money spent assessing ways to improve efficiency with ELNs can be paid back four to five times after ELNs are installed.

The ultimate ROI of some ELNs comes from improved communications. In the pharmaceutical industry, for instance, many companies manage sites around the world and also work with many partners. “Pharmas need to communicate better with themselves and their contacts, like contract research organizations,” Meek says. “They need ways to collate and derive information from their data.” \

Picking the product

At the University of Utah, data curation librarian Daureen Nesdill provides the community with information about ELNs. She says, “I’m initiating a program to implement ELNs on campus at this point. The biggest problem is a business model for paying for them.” She is looking for systems that are not too subject-specific. She says, “The new products—iLabber, RSpace, Irisnote, LabArchives, LabGuru, etcetera—can be used by researchers in the humanities, social sciences, and all of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” She adds, “Researchers can get them up and running in a week and the cost is about one-tenth that of the older products.”

In some companies, though, lab managers might prefer something that is subject-specific. In those cases, Stumpf says, “One of the first things to consider is functionality. A medicinal chemist might look for reaction planning and an analytical chemist will care about interfacing to analytical instruments and data.”

The key is building a system that gets used. As Meek says, “If you’re looking to implement any informatics system, you need a system that users will embrace.” She adds, “If you have something that is cumbersome and doesn’t fit the process of users, you just have a fight on your hands.” To encourage system adoption and ease the implementation process, she encourages companies to include people from various sectors—business, IP, R&D, and so on—in the decision-making process. Only then will real value be gained.

For additional resources on Electronic Laboratory Notebooks, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit