We’re at a point in time when a lot of laboratories can now consider themselves to be ‘electronic’, or ‘paperless’. Paper no longer has the role of being the medium for preserving laboratory records. It’s been a journey that started 40 or more years ago when computers first started to be used in laboratories, and it is a journey that has followed two different streams; scientific computing, i.e. the integration of computing technologies into the scientific process, and laboratory computing, the use of computing technologies to manage laboratory data, information and processes. Inevitably, these two streams having been coming closer together over time. With the replacement of paper laboratory notebooks by their electronic equivalents, the opportunity is there for the two streams to be completely merged.
So is being ‘electronic’ or ‘paperless’ the end of the journey? Almost certainly not; it is the start of the next phase which will distinguish the ‘electronic’ or ‘paperless’ lab from the ‘integrated’ lab. What’s the difference? Most ‘electronic’ or ‘paperless’ labs represent a reactive response to the introduction of computerised systems; i.e. the component parts have been accrued over time, from different vendors, based on different technologies, platforms and data formats, none of which were necessarily designed to work together. Integration is therefore technically challenging, costly and a source of custom solutions. The concept of an integrated lab is a lab that is designed to be integrated; i.e. based on standards technologies, platforms and data formats that were designed to work together. Does such a lab exist? Well, I expect there may be a few that meet these criteria that are heavily focused on a specific function, but most labs fall some way short. But creating an integrated lab is never going to be a simple task. As technologies continue to evolve, science becomes more complex, business pressures become more urgent, regulatory and legal pressures become more stringent, the challenge is significant.
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