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Experiencing Product Maturity: ELNs and LIMS

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It's interesting to observe how Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs) are becoming part of the lab's workflows versus how Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) became an integral part of the way a lab operates. 

LIMS, of course, came about as the result of the ability to utilize new computer technology that made managing lab sample data much more efficient.  When the first commercial LIMS were introduced in the early 1980's, the ability to automate and streamline data acquisition and reporting processes made a phenomenal difference in lab productivity. 

Technology Drives Acceptance

As technology evolved, so did LIMS, going from the early first generation (1G) LIMS that placed laboratory functions onto a single centralized minicomputer to the fourth generation (4G) LIMS of a decade later that utilized a decentralized client/server architecture to optimize resource sharing and network throughput.  Web-enabled LIMS followed quickly then XML-based LIMS and now there are Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) LIMS which enable the researcher to wander around the lab with a tablet to perform their work.  A rather amazing chronicle of changes that took place in less than 30 years. 

ELNs are affecting the lab in a different way.  As they were designed to replace paper notebooks that recorded the lab's research, experiments and procedures, ELNs needed to accommodate a wide variety of unstructured data and tasks.  Initially ELNs were not perceived as the productivity tool that they have become.  Once it was pointed out that data stored on an ELN could be used as a legal document in contested patent cases, market acceptance increased and so did ELN functionality.  And, once again, as technology made laptops–and now tablets–common tools in the lab, ELN use in the lab increased.

In-House Solutions

What's interesting is that there are still organizations that build and maintain in-house LIMS solutions but there does not appear to be a corresponding desire to build in-house ELNs.  This is because LIMS evolved out of in-house systems before becoming available as commercial solutions.  ELNs did not follow this path, but emerged as a result of new technology that could take advantage of the latest software and hardware, in particular the laptops that gained popularity in the 1990s. 

Mobility is Key

Laptops were available almost as soon as desktop computers but were not as powerful nor considered the top computing choice.  Remember that computers weren't in the home and weren't taken in and out of the workplace the way they are now.  Further, ELNs are very closely associated with the hardware, in this case the laptop, since portability and mobility are key requirements.

LIMS were never associated with hardware the same way ELNs are.  Instead, LIMS are location-centric and designed to operate within a specific lab environment.  ELNs are not location-centric, but person-centric, particularly when it comes to proving the date of inventions for patents.  ELNs have replaced the ubiquitous cocktail napkins that used to have the first scribbles of important ideas.  Even when a cocktail napkin or written scribble is used, that written record can be scanned and stored on the ELN and referenced to other data. 

There are on-going discussions about the long-term viability of an electronic record versus a paper one in a court of law.  On the one hand, the accessibility of a paper lab notebook is not affected by obsolete technology while an electronic record must be kept current with technology or it might as well not exist.  Having said that, there are many instances of labs spending months digging through warehoused files to find (or not find) the paper notebook with the critical information. Too, the acceptance of electronic records continues to grow.    

Evolving Expectations

When a new system or solution is introduced to a marketplace, as ELNs were after LIMS had become a must-have system, there are always questions concerning whether it will replace the existing system.  This happened with Chromatography Data Systems (CDS), and continued to happen with Scientific Data Management Systems (SDMS).  While there is some cross-over in functionality, so far all these different systems fulfill different workflow and process requirements.

What has happened is impatience with opening and closing several different systems to retrieve data and results.  Users have pushed for integrated solutions where, for instance, the LIMS pulls data from the CDS and the SDMS to provide a single report without having to open all three systems to access the required data.  Thus it is common to find a variety of systems integrated through a single interface in the lab environment.

The economy has also helped push systems integration as lab processes have become more automated and researcher productivity expectations have increased.  And, new smartphone technology that has become a way of life on a personal level is pushing into the lab.  A recent Forrester Research study found that in the past year alone, smartphone use has grown from 50% to almost 90% in the workplace. Further, nearly three quarters of the smartphones and over 60 per cent of the tablets being used at work are devices purchased and brought to the office by employees.  That's certainly a turnaround from even just a decade earlier!

LIMS and ELNs can both be accessed on laptops and tablets, and it probably won't be long before a smartphone application is available too.  About the question of product maturity: is it judged by how long the product has been in use or by how crystallized it is in form?  In the case of LIMS and ELNs, part of it is defined by market acceptance and use, but it must also be defined in how the product is delivered.  In the case of these two systems, product delivery keeps changing as technology changes, serving up an ever fresh platform with new features and functions.