How to Select an ELN for Biology R&D

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Peter Donnelly
21st October 2019


Should I Consider an ELN?

For companies without an ELN, there might be some uncertainty over how necessary such a system is. This is understandable, especially if the company is relatively young or if R&D seems to be running fairly smoothly without an ELN. The right ELN, though, can have a profoundly positive impact on a company’s productivity and data management practices, as well as make documentation accessible in a scalable manner. Deciding whether ELNs are worth looking into involves deciding whether the long term value of data management, organized record keeping, data access, and ability to manage your company’s IP is worth the time spent on the selection, evaluation, and implementation process, as well as the time and money spent on training and maintenance for the ELN.

When a company is just beginning to build out its informatics infrastructure, it’s vital to recognize which informatics needs an ELN is meant to address, rather than the needs that, say, a LIMS is meant to address.

Of course, an ELN isn’t necessarily a holistic informatics solution, and it might be the case that your informatics needs would actually be better addressed by a system other than an ELN. For example, if your company’s primary informatics issue is to keep track of numerous aliquots and regents, then a LIMS or bioregistration system would be better suited than an ELN. As we will discuss, performing a gap assessment, getting a high-level understanding of the different types of ELNs, and soliciting informatics feedback from stakeholders and your broader network will help you identify the informatics problems that you need to address, and then the type of informatics system best suited to address those problems.

To get a better sense of what companies hope to get out of their ELNs, as well as an outline of the success criteria that any company should be using to assess the health of an existing ELN, skip to the section titled “Measuring an ELN’s Success” at the end of this article. For companies with an ELN already in place, those success metrics can help you determine whether it’s worthwhile to consider an ELN update, but they shouldn’t be the sole deciding factor. To supplement them, solicit feedback from everyone whose workflow is touched by the ELN, ask them if they’ve used any preferable solutions in the past, and reach out to your network beyond your company to compare the success of your existing ELN against theirs.

Types of ELNs

ACADEMIC FREEWARE ELNS:

These solutions offer streamlined functionality in a browser-based experience. They vary significantly in terms of their collaboration and review functionality, as well as the extent to which they can be integrated with existing informatics tools and instruments.


PROS

• Most affordable

• Tend to be user-friendly

• Sometimes, more frequent releases of new versions

• Operating system independent


CONS

• Limited functionality not always aligned with scientific needs

• Can’t always meaningfully integrate with other tools

• Frequent releases of new versions aren’t a sure thing

• Security concerns for low-rent cloud solutions

• Limited functionality for large/complex organisations


LEGACY DESKTOP APPLICATIONS

These are the ELNs that scientists have grown to know. They’re “heavyweight” desktop applications that companies historically made large investments in (typically, they cost 50-150% more than cloud-based solutions, along with additional maintenance and upgrade costs) to support extensive informatics infrastructures. Unlike their academic freeware counterparts, they have no shortage of features, which can make them complex and difficult to use, albeit comprehensive.


PROS

• Extensive features

• Support for intricate integrations

• Long track record in pharma


CONS

• Costly to maintain

• Less frequent releases of new versions

• Not always accessible on all operating systems

• Potentially low user compliance

• Costly subscription, implementation, and upgrades


CLOUD-BASED PLATFORMS

The newest of the three categories, these ELNs combine the ease-of-use and accessibility of freeware solutions with the features and integration capabilities of desktop applications. Being part of a platform solution, they come seamlessly unified with other informatics software, such as bio registration, workflow management, and molecular biology tools, making for new, cross-functional possibilities.


PROS

• Extensive features

• User-friendly

• Enhanced visibility through native and additional integrations

• More frequent releases of new versions

• Potential to only use the necessary elements of the platform

• Operating system independent


CONS

• Usually costly subscription

• Track record isn’t as extensive

• Must ensure the system offers robust APIs for integration capabilities


Beyond particular functional and budgetary concerns, choosing the right category will depend on how much value your company places on the familiarity of a legacy solution relative to the potential to be an early adopter of the next wave of ELNs. Obviously, investing in an ELN that doesn’t work today but might work tomorrow isn’t always a wise move, but there are alternatives to the ELNs of yesterday.

In answering this question, consider your high-level integration and security requirements. Do you only need to pull data out of the ELN, or do also need to push data from instruments, or from a sophisticated data analysis system? If you need to push as well as pull data with your ELN solution, you’ll have to make sure that your eventual solution is either locally hosted, offers a single-tenant environment (where only your company’s work occupies a cloud system’s particular database), or offers a robust API for integrations.



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Market Research

With your requirements list and your preliminary bucketing of potential ELN solutions as your guides, it’s time to begin identifying potential vendors. The sources for these vendors are almost endless: Google, LinkedIn groups, your existing network, your stakeholders, trade shows, the list goes on. This is the least cut-and-dried element of the process, but more than anything, the breadth of your initial search matters.

Especially for newer cutting-edge solutions, there are several up-and-coming vendors that don’t have as strong a market presence as some of the legacy solutions. If you’re going after these solutions, the more you leverage your network, the better; don’t just ask which solutions a contact is using, ask which solutions they considered before they settled on their current solutions. It could be that the solutions they turned down are a better fit for your company, and by doing this, you’ll be fully leveraging others’ past market research for your own company.

For each vendor that looks like a potential fit, send them an edited version of your requirements document that doesn’t disclose any confidential information, and request details of how their product could meet those requirements. After analyzing the vendor responses, it should be more or less clear which vendors might fit your needs and which definitely do not. Together with representatives of each stakeholder group, identify the four or five most promising vendors and invite them to give a product overview. Limiting your evaluation at this next stage to four or five vendors will ensure that you can give each of them the diligence that the evaluation requires.

Measuring an ELN’s Success

Now that you’ve adopted a new ELN, it’s important that you continuously measure its success. Of course, the needs of companies differ, and so the places where ELNs succeed or come up short do as well. There are, however, a few common ways to measure the success of an ELN so that you make sure you’re using your new tool to its fullest.

SCIENTIST USAGE

It may seem obvious, but one rule of thumb that holds true across organizations for assessing the success of an ELN is the number of scientists using it and the number of experiments being created. No solution will ever see universal adoption, and although scientists might get their data into a mandatory solution eventually, a high rate of scientists actively using an ELN on a daily basis is a strong indicator of scientists’ happiness with the solution. Make sure to track not only the number of users but the frequency of their use.

COMPENSATORY TOOLS

When an ELN isn’t sufficiently functional or user-friendly, scientists look elsewhere for tools that can compensate. They might record their experiments in a paper notebook and then scan the pages into their ELN, or they might even record their experiments in another ELN before exporting those entries into the “official” ELN.

Conclusion

Sourcing and evaluating an ELN solution is never a cut-and-dry process, but by being methodical and following these best practices, you can maximize your chances of finding the solution that’s right for you. In this guide, we traced a complete ELN selection process, from identifying the need for an ELN, to sourcing and, lastly, evaluation. We stressed the importance of simultaneously refining your requirements and your list of potential vendors so that you avoid disqualifying a solution too early while still being thorough in your vetting. We also emphasized getting stakeholder buy-in at every stage of the process to make sure that everyone affected by the ELN supports and understands the decision you reach. But lastly, keep in mind that this guide shouldn’t serve as the ultimate decider of how to go about your ELN evaluation. Evaluations can take on a lot of different forms and still be successful. The suggestions gathered here are the results of market research conducted with heads of IT and leading industry consultants, but don’t be afraid to go off-script if you think that would work better for you. Hopefully, this guide can serve as a starting point for your own evaluation, whatever structure it ends up taking.

If you are ready to transition to an ELN solution, Labstep is here to listen to your unique needs. Using Labstep has helped companies save up to 6 hours of admin work per person every week. Find out more information by enquiring with us here.