One of the most typical debates when it comes to creating a paperless lab environment is what type of informatics system to put in place; a LIMS or an ELN. Now anybody who is in the know in this industry understands that this debate isn’t really necessary; a lot of ELN’s have the features or integration necessary to support and add real value to a LIMS system. Additionally, a lot of LIMS systems features an ELN or ELN-like applications. But ultimately, what cause this line of questioning is a fundamental misunderstanding of what an ELN does, why it is useful and - most importantly - why it is utterly essential in the modern lab. To understand the benefits of an ELN we must first clarify why a comprehensive paperless lab strategy is the future and the now of the modern laboratory.
More than just electronic tracking
A lot of the more old-fashioned people in the industry view an ELN as being little more than an expensive application that could be just as easily, and much more cheaply, solved by the use of extensive laboratory notes and the use of everyday applications such as Excel. This simply isn’t true. What an ELN offers the lab is a complete, GxP-compliant system that reinforces and supports every part of the lab process. It improves and creates an environment of superior data integrity and streamlines and eases the flow and exchange of information, allowing crucially for on the go monitoring of experiments, both within the lab and without. This is in addition to the quicker workflows that result out of its use as it enables quicker data recording and archiving, the improved security and posterity of that data, as well as creating labs which are inherently more collaborative through the ease of sharing information and the access to it.
One of the biggest worries about ELN’s, particularly regarding cloud and web-based ELN’s, is one of compliance and data integrity. Within laboratory informatics, this is among the most highly prioritized issues and as we move into the peak of productivity with these software’s we have now approached the point where these applications are not just GxP compliant, but actually improve compliance. Part of the way they are able to do this is in the ease of training new staff on these applications and in the GDP-compliant nature of these applications. Because they are, by default (when used correctly of course) compliant applications, what they mean is that staff training can be simplified over one platform and that platform is consistent across everyone in the lab and the interpretation of data, results and findings is consistently accessible to all, as opposed to the ‘Chinese whispers’ effect that can happen when original paper lab notes are preserved but then translated and communicated multiple times to all the staff. This core archive of information prevents that and ensures that there is a central repository, easily accessible to all within the lab of their own systems, is available.
Training and Academia
Perhaps one of the most useful parts of an ELN is its use in training and academia, both for students and instructors. For the student the ease of collaboration and access to data, the data being universally translatable and the speed at which the information can be submitted quickens and improves the process all round. For instructors real-time monitoring of experiments, without being in the lab, becomes possible as being one of the biggest benefits of an ELN. As the information is exchanged as well, it also enables it to be graded quicker as well. Experiments have been conducted with groups of students as well and the general result of which was that the more familiar students became with an ELN, the better they graded for GDPs.
Introducing an ELN is not all sunshine and rainbows however. There are perfectly legitimate complaints about using and ELN. However, most of these issues come down to the implementation of these systems, systems maintenance and the cost of such. Even with an off-the-shelf ELN that provides ongoing support via a service provider, there will still be technical issues inevitably from time to time, it can be time consuming to set up and though physical security risks are addressed it introduces a whole new world of digital security risks. The costs of implementing are of course more than just a software license for an off-the-shelf model; a company will need backup systems, dedicated IT staff including specialists and IT security protocols as well as dedicated servers and the space for them. For a software as a service model a lot of this is solved but at greater recurring cost and at the limit of being slightly detached from the software and dependent on the provider.
The good news is that most of these costs will be offset long term, either as a direct consequence of the removal of the PLN or as an indirect effect, such as the time saved through its use and therefore the better use of man-hours. Standardized and searchable data as well as it now being universally understandable (no more messy handwriting!) and quickly translatable increases functionality of a lab across industries, though especially where data sharing and collaboration is a necessity. The use of an ELN, where the digitization of the experiments is at the source, improves the data and metadata quality, reproducibility of the experiment, posterity and storage of data and the length and impact of the experiments data.
The biggest bugbear about an ELN is its price, but it more than justifies it over its lifetime. Sure, the people who make these products do well out of them, but so they should; they have created infrastructure which can enhance the lab from top to bottom. Added to that, it is no more expensive then maintaining a paper lab notebook, especially over time, and the improvement to workflows logistically makes it a must-have, especially for teaching and research & development laboratories.
Of course, the most important thing when considering an ELN to note is that there is no universally agreed best product. Whilst it is certainly clear that some are better than others, moreover it depends on the business and laboratory requirements of the particular lab than anything else. When lacking the awareness of this, it is important to remember that there are consultancies all across the world that can provide business analysis to help determine the best system and a relative smorgasbord of excellent applications. Whilst the up-front cost can be high, the posterity of these applications and their improvement to lab process and data integrity make them more than worth it in the long run.