ELN vs LIMS: a guide to differences & how to choose
7 min read
Want to use a digital tool to manage your work in the lab, but feel confused by all the possibilities? You might notice that most of them fall under either ELNs or LIMS – but the line between the two isn’t always clear. Here, we break down the differences, and put together some practical tips that can help you choose the right tool for your needs.
What is an ELN?
“As research becomes predominantly digitalized, scientists have the option of using electronic laboratory notebooks to record and access entries. These systems can more readily meet volume, complexity, accessibility and preservation requirements than paper notebooks.”
You might think that an electronic lab notebook, or ELN, is just the digital version of the traditional paper notebook where scientists and researchers annotate all records associated with their experiments. These days, though, an ELN offers so much more than this.
When using an ELN, it is possible to incorporate templates for repeated experiments, use integrated tools such as Microsoft Office and Protocols.io, capture data and metadata of the results for long-term storage, and record observations and troubleshooting notes. In addition, ELNs can be set up on a cloud-based system, allowing researchers to share and access data and protocols in real-time from anywhere. The recent months-long lockdowns and travel restrictions that we have all experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic have shown how an essential feature this is. ELNs guarantee an improved availability of experimental data, encouraging collaborations between different departments, research groups, stakeholders, and scientists worldwide. It could also help researchers meet institutional data sharing policies, like the one set out by NIH for 2023.
With digitalization, ELNs also come with the benefits that you enjoy with other digital platforms. That is, you can now search and sort your protocols, results, and data, or automate some laboratory tasks – these are things that a paper lab notebook can’t do. Last but not the least, a few ELN systems, including SciNote, support functionalities such as audit trails and e-signatures that can help users meet regulatory standards including FDA 21 CFR Part 11. This is critical especially for work that might one day require regulatory approval by the FDA or other authorities.
With so many benefits, it is no wonder that a growing number of biotech companies and academic laboratories are switching from a paper to a digital version of their scientific notebook.
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What is a LIMS?
LIMS stands for laboratory inventory management system. Although there is often some confusion between the two, it is a completely different tool than an ELN.
LIMS first emerged in the 80’s as automated reporting tools to eliminate the errors caused by manual processes of samples. Their main purpose is sample management – LIMS replace spreadsheets that might be marred by human errors, and allow labs to manage samples and other lab information, such as inventory or instrument calibration, efficiently.
With LIMS, it is easier to trace samples and corresponding test results and data, monitor inventory levels and create stock alerts, and ensure samples are labeled and placed in a consistent way. Because LIMS will keep track of sample workflow from start to finish, you can ensure all the information pertaining to a particular sample is kept together – and this might be of importance when it comes to meeting regulatory requirements.
You can also use LIMS to create sample management reports and certificates of analysis – this is especially useful for biotech or pharmaceutical companies that provide outsourced analysis for clients; having a streamlined and automated reporting system is critical here.
Because a LIMS is also a digital system, it shares many benefits that an ELN can provide. We will go into this in the next section.
Benefits of using ELNs and LIMS
ELNs and LIMS are invaluable digital tools that allow researchers and lab managers to focus on the science instead of spending resources to develop in-house, hard-to-maintain systems. Both allow for easy-to-use interfaces and can be configured to meet the users’ requirements. There are also opportunities to link them to laboratory instruments and other third-party applications, or use them on portable digital devices such as tablets and smartphones.
ELNs and LIMS share some common benefits:
- Searchable – Given their digital nature, entries into ELNs and LIMS will be searchable, therefore eliminating the time-consuming task of looking for a specific protocol, sample, or data set.
- Automated – ELNs and LIMS can help labs automate certain processes, such as report generation, manuscript writing, or inventory tracking.
- Consistent – ELNs and LIMS can help laboratories maintain consistency by following pre-set protocol templates or workflows, and ensure the results are accurate and reproduceable.
- Collaborative – Labs can share content from ELNs and LIMS easily, which can encourage collaboration and knowledge exchange among researchers and stakeholders, regulatory bodies, and funders.
- Traceable – ELNs and LIMS can help labs ensure they can easily track experiments, samples, protocols, and results. In some cases, this also means establishing an audit trail, developing a chain of custody, incorporating e-signatures – to meet regulatory requirements.
ELNs and LIMS remove a lot of manual work necessary in lab processes. This results in significant time-saving (e.g., SciNote users report saving 9 hours a week on average), and helps labs quickly identify opportunities and prevent errors. Therefore, an investment in an ELN or a LIMS can result in a significant return for the laboratories.
All these advantages provided by ELNs and LIMS are particularly important in today’s fast-paced research world.
ELN vs LIMS
Despite the common benefits, there are many differences between ELNs and LIMS. One of the main differences between ELNs and LIMS is the fact that ELNs are usually dedicated to the storage and recording of unstructured research data (e.g., experimental data from the R&D stage), while LIMS are dedicated to structured and repetitive data following patterns and templates (e.g., diagnostic results from a testing lab).
This means that ELNs are much more experiment-centric, and works well in situations that require flexibility to accommodate changes or capture details of an experiment – such as results, troubleshooting, or unstructured notes. On the other hand, LIMS are primarily sample-centric (storage, labeling, recording, reporting, certification), so they work well in environments characterized by repetitive and consistent activities.
How to decide between an ELN and a LIMS
Now that the differences and similarities between ELNs and LIMS are clear – Do you need an ELN? Or do you need a LIMS?
The answer is – select the tool that best fits your needs.
Knowing that these two tools are designed for different purposes, the first thing to do is to identify your primary needs. Are you looking to organize protocols, notes, and data from experiments? Or to track samples from well-defined, repeated and routine tests?
For example, pharma, biotech, and agritech companies doing research and generating new data need to be able to track and document experiments, results, and interpretation. In this case, an ELN is the better choice. A laboratory that performs routine testing for COVID-19 would find a LIMS very useful.
In the chart below, we outline some laboratory needs you might want to meet when choosing an ELN or a LIMS. Note that this is generalized; different ELN and LIMS systems might offer additional functionalities that are not included in this chart.
Something else to keep in mind is that many ELN and LIMS vendors have worked to increase the capacity of what their systems can handle. This is not meant to say that they will replace each other; it is though possible you might meet all your needs with one or the other. For example, SciNote, our ELN system, now includes basic LIMS functionalities such as inventory management and labeling integration. While it is still geared towards experiment-centric workflows typical of research and development work, these added features might make it an appropriate solution to support your needs.
“Whether an electronic lab notebook (ELN) can double as a lab information management system (LIMS)—and vice versa—depends on the type of lab you run and what it needs.”
What if you find that neither an ELN nor a LIMS alone can fulfil your laboratory digitalization needs? For example, a testing laboratory set up inside a company might provide both routine testing and also materials for research. In this case, a combination of an ELN and a LIMS would be the best choice to optimize both workflows (the experimental and the testing one). We at SciNote have seen our ELN being used to supplement a company’s existing LIMS system. This integration is possible through the RESTful API that SciNote has.
Lastly, ELNs and LIMS systems might come with very different price tags. So make sure to do your research if budget is a concern.
Now that you know all about ELNs and LIMS, you can make better decisions about what you might need when it comes to your lab’s digital solutions!
By Dr Arianna Ferrini, biomedical scientist and medical writer & Theresa Liao, SciNote’s Content Marketing Specialist
If you like this post, also check out
- How Trendy Are LIMS or ELN Systems – a Software Engineer Perspective
- Automating Lab Processes with API [Guide with Examples]
- Can an ELN Be Used as a LIMS? via Lab Manager
- ELN, LIMS, CDS, LES: What’s the Difference? via Technology Networks
- Laboratory Informatics Tools Integration Strategies for Drug Discovery: Integration of LIMS, ELN, CDS, and SDMS via SLAS Technology
- Institutional ELN/LIMS deployment via EMBO Reports
You can also read all our testimonials from academia and industry, showing the time-saving and efficiency advantages of using an ELN.
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