To remain competitive in today’s world, all but the smallest of laboratories require an informatics system1,2 to track their samples and analytical results. This typically means selecting between applications referred to as a Laboratory Information Management System3 (LIMS) or an Electronic Laboratory Notebook4 (ELN). As these tend to be complementary systems, it is important that you select the one that best matches your needs.
Which system is optimal for your operation depends on what you are trying to do. To best understand which is most suitable, we first need to understand what each is designed for. However, over the past few years, the distinction between these systems has become increasingly blurred as vendors have incorporated features from ELNs into LIMS and LIMS into ELNs5. As such, there are many instances where either a LIMS or ELN could satisfactorily be used.
LIMS were one of the first laboratory informatics systems and are probably still the most common. Depending on whether you are an analyst, sample receiver, lab manager, or handle accounts you would likely come up with different answers if asked about the purpose of a LIMS. However, a LIMS can generally be described as a sample centric application to track the flow of samples and data through the laboratory with a strong emphasis on maintaining the integrity of this data. In addition to sample and analytical data it may also track analyst certifications, instrument maintenance, reagent inventories, et al. Another important role of a LIMS is to generate analytical reports, whether paper or electronic, for distributing the analytical results to the lab’s customers. A LIMS is best suited for situations where you are dealing with very structured data, such as in a manufacturing facility or regulatory testing laboratory where you are running the same tests over and over. Many of the major LIMS systems are designed as general-purpose tools that can be used in many industries, while others are designed for niche applications and are highly customized to support very specific needs.
The somewhat deceptive term, Electronic Laboratory Notebook (ELN), is an umbrella that incorporates systems with diverse functionality, though generally targeting less structured data6. In some industries, ELNs are categorized based on whether they are intended for use in a discovery/research or a regulated laboratory environment7, with the associated regulatory and procedural requirements these classifications imply. Others group them by their primary market audience such as R&D, Biology, Chemistry, QA/QC, and Multidiscipline8. A system designed for QA/QC would require data to be more structured, at least for an individual test, and might restrict the types of data that can be embedded in it. It may well include functionality to encourage compliance with the organization’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). In contrast, a system designed for R&D use might be extremely free-form, allowing you to embed a diverse set of data types such as MS Word documents, JPEG image files, and raw chromatography data.
Beyond the classification restrictions mentioned above, within each classification, you will find systems that are flexible enough to support many different industries, while other systems are highly customized for a particular industry application. No matter how classified, all ELNs will rigorously track every alteration in the records it maintains. This means that you can always examine the contents of a record at any point in time, determine whether any changes were made, and who made them. While making it easier to retrieve data, an ELN is also more conducive to collaborative activities than a paper notebook9.
Because of the different types of data that a LIMS and ELN are optimized for, it is not uncommon for organizations to have both LIMS and ELN systems installed10. Sometimes they are treated as two isolated systems, other times they are integrated together to maximize the usefulness of the data generated. Instruments can generally be interfaced with both types of systems to boost productivity and reduce data corruption from transcription errors.
Deciding whether you need a LIMS or ELN can be a very complicated process, as you are dealing with a continuum of functionality. In general, a LIMS excels in dealing with fixed repetitive tests while an R&D ELN excels with free form exploratory testing and development. A QA/QC ELN lies somewhere between the two, supporting both structured and free form data. When in doubt, tapping into the expertise of an informatics consultancy can help remove some of the uncertainty from the selection process.
*References available upon request*