Implementing Electronic Lab Notebooks
Systems Integration

This is the fifth article in a series on best practices in Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) implementation.  The first article  on "How do you define and manage success?" identified five core areas that need to be managed to ensure a successful ELN deployment with subsequent articles focusing on

Building the Foundation
• Documenting Experiments 
• Enabling Collaboration 

This article discusses the fourth core area: System Integration.

Scientists consume and generate reams of data in their daily lab work. On the consumption side, online databases provide a plethora of information, ranging from reaction schema to spectral data to available chemicals. The ability to use this data during daily work can greatly increase the efficiency and productivity of the scientist.

Documenting this information along with data generated from the experiment presents special challenges when working in a paper notebook. How can the data from disparate systems be incorporated into an experiment with 100 percent fidelity? One of our customers recently summed up the value of an ELN nicely: “When everything else you’re doing is already electronic, an electronic notebook makes a lot of sense.”

ELNs leverage the electronic laboratory environment by allowing data, images, files, etc., to be directly embedded and visualized in documents, thus eliminating the need to transcribe or cut and paste data from one system to another. ELNs make this process even more effective, enabling searching and sharing of the data through well-designed templates created during initial deployment.

Data Sources
Depending on the scientific discipline, the type and variety of data that needs to be incorporated into an experiment can vary dramatically. The interaction between the ELN and data sources is bi-directional with a need to both read and write data. The following table provides examples of integrations.




Internal • Preparation Recipes
• Data Modeling Tools
• Work Request
• Registration
• Sample Management

• Preparation Recipes
• Metrology
• Work Request
• Sample Management
System • Document Management

• Document Management
• Instruments

External   • Available Chemicals
• Reaction Planning

Table 1: System Integration Points

Internal - The internal integration points are generally proprietary databases and data stores within the enterprise. They may be based on commercial products that provide functionality for metrology, sample management, resource planning, etc. Other internal integration points may be homegrown systems tailored to manage proprietary information such as formulations, recipes, instrument setup parameters, etc. In all cases, the stored data has direct impact on the daily work within the enterprise -- easy access, recording and updating of information are key to an efficient and effective research effort.

System - The ELN is not the only electronic system in the laboratory. Today’s laboratories and pilot plants are almost entirely digital. Balances, bioreactors and analytical instruments all report their information digitally, either as discrete readings or as file-based output. File-based data is often integrated with software packages such as Chromatography Data Management Systems (CDMS) or Scientific Data Management Systems (SDMS). These software packages not only provide management of the data, but also varying levels of data analysis.

Whether discrete values, experimental parameters or spectral data, direct access to this information is essential for full documentation of experiment work.

External - Commercially available data sources have become more prevalent in recent years. Databases to find available chemicals and to plan synthetic pathways are all available via the Internet. Integration of such databases with the ELN provides invaluable information to the chemist in planning and executing campaigns.

Advantages of ELN integration
The electronic lab environment should be designed with the ELN as the central integration point. In this architecture, ELNs connect to and integrate with the veritable alphabet soup of systems: sample management (LIMS), analytical instrumentation (CDS) and scientific data (SDMS) systems; modeling and simulation programs; chemical inventory systems and scientific databases; and business-level systems such as document management systems or SAP. The Electronic Lab Environment (ELE) provides a number of advantages for the scientist.

  • Consistent data input. Integration provides direct access to data and thus avoids transcription errors and ensures what is stored in one system is populated automatically in another. For instance, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems can be utilized to populate project names and numbers in systems requiring this information. Integration with SDMS systems ensures fidelity when recording sample sequences, peak integration and spectral data. Consistent, accurate data input expedites searching. Plus, the single interface to data through the ELN means scientists spend less time learning and using multiple systems during their daily routine.
  • Reduced documentation time. In a fully integrated electronic lab, the ELN consolidates information from multiple systems and eliminates many paper-based documentation tasks. The “arts and craft” sessions common in many paper-based labs that manipulate paper-based data for inclusion into paper notebooks, can consume upwards of four hours/week per scientist. Eliminating this work can result in substantial savings. The example below shows the ROI associated with saving one hour/week can exceed 3 million dollars.

        ? Number of users: 500
        ? Hourly Rate: $125
        ? Time Saved: One hour/week over 50 weeks
            500*$125*1*50 = $3.125 million

As several speakers at the Symyx Symposium (now Accelrys) noted, the ultimate goal is for tasks to be “self-documenting,” never requiring users to step outside of the work they are doing to tell a notebook or a system that they are doing it.

  • Reduced time for review. With increased integration, issues associated with external data recording such as transcription errors are virtually eliminated. Review of experiments no longer have to focus on whether data is recorded correctly, but can focus instead on whether the data has been properly analyzed and if the conclusions are scientifically sound. Savings similar to “reduced documentation time” can also be achieved in the review process.  
  • More efficient research. Systems integration ensures that the information scientists need to do their work is where they need it, when they need it. Experiments are easier to plan and execute, not just because scientists have access to required systems, but because they have the ability to search past work and build on what colleagues have already accomplished. Well-integrated ELNs speed the work researchers do today, while ensuring that they don’t have to repeat experiments or do extra work tomorrow.

In the past, paper notebooks collected everything scientists did. Today, the ELN is no different. In fact, some of our customers have referred to the ELN as “the center of the universe” for scientists. Done right, integration through an ELN can provide a portal to all the systems and data that scientists need to do science.

Integrating the ELN with both local and global resources can have a profound impact on enterprise research.

Successful integration of the ELN with other electronic-based systems in the laboratory greatly multiplies the effectiveness and ROI of the ELN deployment. Substantial time reductions can be achieved when creating and reviewing experiments while data integrity is improved.

By providing access to a vast array of information and data, the ELN keeps scientists apprised of the latest information affecting their research as well as the availability of resources needed to execute campaigns. In this way, the ELN brings a new dimension of efficiency to the research effort, enabling scientists to get the answers they need in the least amount of time.

Bennett Lass is the Director of ELN Services at Accelrys Inc. He may be reached at