Some 10 to 15 years ago, there was a good deal of confusion about Electronic Lab Notebooks. When IQPC kicked off their series of annual ELN conferences in 2002, the questions were all about what is an ELN, how did they work, could they really replace the traditional paper lab notebook and would they stand up to legal scrutiny. But as the ELN market evolved and edged towards a growing level of maturity, the role and purpose of an ELN in laboratory life started to become clearer. Consequently ELNs achieved a growing level of acceptance, initially in the area of small molecule chemistry, and also gained better traction with regard to biology, which was originally seen as a challenge. But then, just as the market started to stabilise, along came the disruptive force of ‘convergence’, which has generated a level of confusion, particularly for anyone looking to move towards a more integrated, electronic laboratory environment. So when you look at the agenda for this year’s ELNs Conference, the 11th in the series, you will see that it is geared up to address convergence not only by co-location with the Laboratory Data & Information Management conference, but also by the content of the technical programme.
Prior to 2008, the ELN and LIMS markets seemed to be quite independent of each other. But as laboratories become more ‘electronic’ the boundaries between an ELN and a LIMS have become somewhat less clear. Some LIMS companies have started to add ELN functionality to their products. Some ELN companies have added LIMS-like functionality to their products to address analytical requirements, and in the background we have organisations adapting Scientific Data Management Systems (SDMS) to become an ‘ELN’ (Will SDMS become ELN of the future, and Enhancing the Value of Laboratory Information), not to mention the existence of Laboratory Execution Systems (LES), which can be perceived as a LIMS or an ELN, depending on your viewpoint.
The extent of convergence in the informatics market is now making it somewhat confusing for potential customers. The following table identifies the core differences in the major tools:
|ELN||Experiment-centric, an authoring tool that handles unstructured data and offers generic and specific functionality to support different scientific disciplines|
|LES||Procedure or experiment-centric, basically able to handle structured data, and some unstructured data. Specifically designed to meet the requirements of the GxP environment.|
|LIMS||Sample-centric, primarily designed to handle structured data, and offers sample and test management, batch operations and industry-specific workflows.|
|SDMS||Data-centric, handles data files from laboratory instruments, meta-data, documents and the relationships between them.|
The initial scope, or purpose of each of these tools addressed a well-defined, functional requirement, but the increasing level of sophistication of the underlying information technologies has made it easier to extend functionality in ways that mean that there is now considerable overlap between the different tools. At one stage it was considered unlikely that a single ELN could provide the necessary functionality to support chemistry, biology and analytical requirements. As far as the major ELN vendors are concerned, those days are over, and this should, at least, make the task of finding a suitable ELN somewhat easier. But the extent of the overlap with LIMS, SDMS, and LES can generate confusion and for someone looking to address laboratory information management requirements, the task seems to be more challenging. So when it comes to choosing the right solution for your laboratory, then it’s far better to start by defining an objective, or describing the problem you wish to solve, rather than placing the initial focus on a ‘solution’. Just deciding ‘we need an ELN’ or ‘we need a LIMS’ should not be the starting point; it’s far better to think about the big picture, i.e. the end-to-end business process that embraces the role of the laboratory, the specific workflows, the communication and collaboration requirements, and the integration requirements. Once this has been defined, the search can start!