Whether an electronic lab notebook (ELN) can double as a lab information management system (LIMS)—and vice versa—depends on the type of lab you run and what it needs. If your lab is running experiments to advance science and develop new products, its needs are considerably different from those of quality assurance or public health labs that engage in high-volume sample testing or routine analyses.
“Traditional ELNs and LIMS serve specific purposes, and have their limitations,” says Claire Hill, head of biopharma life cycle management marketing at IDBS.
Consider their purpose
ELNs are designed for use at the bench to help scientists capture and describe experiments. The timelines they provide can be vital in protecting intellectual property claims, especially when those claims are challenged by competitors.
They generally enhance efficiency and reduce overall costs, but they are not a panacea. Although ELNs may provide a level of data analytics, help manage workflows, and are searchable, “ELNs struggle to report on sample and structured experimental data in a way that supports fast, efficient, configurable, and accurate reporting,” says Hill.
“The focus of LIMS is on what happened in the experiment, but not why or how it happened.”
A LIMS, in contrast, manages scientific samples, test data, and processes system-wide, from sample registration through the reporting of results. They provide sample-specific summaries of test results across multiple tests and protocols, and also track reagents. Because they enable automated workflows, they help reduce human errors during data input and sample processing. They do not, however, store the details of the experiments and, therefore, lack the context needed to interpret the results. As Hill notes, “The focus of LIMS is on what happened in the experiment, but not why or how it happened.”
Therefore, for R&D organizations, a LIMS cannot replace an ELN. But, for routine testing labs, neither can an ELN replace a LIMS. Instead, lab managers find they often need elements of both in one solution.
Hybrid solutions may work
To meet this need, the lines between LIMS and ELNs are blurring. “The convergence of ELNs and LIMS has been happening for the past decade,” says Nicolas Louvet, software product manager, Agilent Technologies. “ELN providers have tried to add features to manage samples and procedures, while LIMS providers…have added lab-oriented features.”
For example, Agilent’s SLIMS solution purports to provide digital coverage of all activities in the lab, tracking and managing samples, specifications, analysis, and results, and connecting instruments, data systems, and procedures. Meanwhile, Waters’ NuGenesis Lab Management System combines a data repository with an ELN and sample management modules. SciCord also offers a hybrid, cloud-based solution that claims to combine the best of both types of management systems. ACD/Labs’ offering, called an analytical data management system, claims to bridge the space between ELNs and LIMS by processing data and creating reports while allowing users to go back to access the raw data.
“The convergence of ELNs and LIMS has been happening for the past decade.”
As Hill says, hybrid solutions aim to “support the creation and curation of a data backbone across the full biopharma development life cycle, and also support data analytics.”
The benefit is ease of management. “Application convergence can reduce the number of solutions to implement,” Louvet says, like the convergence of separate printer, fax, and scanning devices into all-in-one systems in the early 1990s.
Focus on your eGoals
In deciding between a basic ELN or LIMS, or a hybrid solution that offers some of each, “Think about what you will use the software for,” says Richard Lee, director of core technology and capabilities at ACD/Labs. Both ELN and LIMS include some level of tracking capabilities. Report generation is another commonality, enabling LIMS reports to be added to ELN records. “If you’re just performing sample analysis, a LIMS is more than suitable. If you’re tracking sample inventory, an ELN can do that,” he says
While some hybrid systems may blend capabilities effectively, be conscious of potential tradeoffs in each solution you consider. “ELNs and LIMS are designed for different purposes,” Lee reiterates.
Additionally, Lee says many vendors still tend to work within their own hardware ecosystems or with limited third parties. Consequently, intraoperability with other systems and with a variety of lab instruments may be an issue.
Beyond the capabilities of the systems themselves, also consider your lab’s IT environment. For example, determine whether the system you favor needs a cloud computing system or specialized IT infrastructure. Think about how it would be integrated into your inventory, registration system, and other databases and what that entails to enable data to be moved among systems and instruments as needed. Consult your IT department, and be sure to balance the scientific and business aspects of any system you are considering.
Lab managers in biotech and pharmaceutical companies or others creating new science need the ability to track and document experiments, so an ELN is needed, Lee says. Alternatively, “If you’re a routine lab testing facility, a LIMS would be handy.” Before making the decision for your lab, take the time to determine exactly what you need and why.
For labs that need the scientific functionality of an ELN as well as the tracking and management capabilities of a LIMS, a hybrid may be the best choice. As Hill advises, “Look for a solution that captures both the context and scientific intelligence of an experiment alongside sample information and test results, thus creating a consolidated view of the data that a basic ELN or a LIMS alone fails to deliver.”