eLabBlog

The Digital Era for Research Operations and Management Has Arrived. Here’s Why. 

By Ramzi Abbassi 6 min read 13 Jul 2023

Digitalisation is taking over our personal and professional lives. 

Now more than ever, life science organisations are digitising their lab tools and research operations to increase efficiency, enhance data management, foster collaboration, and ensure data security.

The application of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) has also become widespread, thereby generating deeper insights and answers to the grand (yet challenging) biological questions we face today.

This blog post will explore the increasing data management challenges academic, industry, government, and non-profit research organisations face in our rapidly evolving era of AI, automation, and multi-omics.

The Need for a Digital Solution for “Everything” in the Life Science Lab

The need for a comprehensive digital lab solution has become more evident as research data becomes more dispersed across various data analysis and information management systems. In today’s dynamic landscape, organisations seek a more centralised platform to oversee “everything” in a life science lab: Data, samples, protocols, notebook entries, reagents, inventories, instruments, and more. 

Moreover, the demand for interoperability and seamless integration with other systems is rapidly growing, along with the need to comply with ever-changing research governance, ethics, data security, and educational requirements.

To address these challenges effectively, the transition from traditional paper lab notebooks to electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) began over two decades ago and is now accelerating and growing globally. Adopting an ELN offers a range of benefits, including user-friendly interfaces, enhanced security measures, and compatibility with other systems.

By digitising laboratory processes, scientific progress and publications are expected to scale, regulatory compliance will improve, and job satisfaction and student learning experiences will be enhanced.

It is important to note that the success and impact of lab digitalisation depend on internal change management practices, process standardisation, and robust end-user training and support structures.

With these elements in place, life science organisations can fully leverage the potential of digital lab solutions and navigate the transformative journey toward a more efficient research environment.

How Do Digital Lab Platforms Help Research Operations and Management? 

There are many ways that digital lab platforms can benefit life science labs. Here, we review a few key publications that offer reliable data to support the advantages of using digital lab platforms.

Faster and FAIRer Data Quality Output

When utilised effectively, ELNs significantly increase the speed of data collection, analysis, and collaboration. 

Researchers who have successfully implemented ELNs have reported faster completion of research experiments compared to traditional paper notebooks. This is partly because modern research equipment generates digital data, allowing for seamless integration with ELNs. 

2022 Nature article highlighted that using ELNs frees up more time for actual research by reducing the time required for data collection, analysis, and manuscript preparation. Can you imagine how much time you could save if you didn’t have to print data on paper, trim the excess with scissors, and glue or tape it into a paper lab notebook? Moreover, the digitalisation of laboratory processes facilitates the standardisation of data collection and analysis, promoting transparency and reproducibility of experiments.

Another challenge scientists and researchers face is facilitating knowledge discovery of scientific data and its associated workflows and algorithms by machines and humans. FAIR data practices outline principles to make data Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable, thus facilitating the uninhibited data flow to the broader scientific community. With ELNs, you can document all device setups, plan experiments, save digital experiment data, and add human or analogue observations, enabling researchers to comply with FAIR data practices seamlessly. 

In addition to these benefits, certain ELN providers offer Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and Software Development Kits (SDKs) that enable users to connect their ELN with other research software platforms and systems, such as Microsoft365, GraphPad Prism, and other third-party software. 

These integrations streamline workflows, minimise errors and duplications, and enable easy data transfer or sharing between platforms.

Lab digitalisation enhances research output and future-proofs your processes by facilitating further integration and adapting to evolving inter-operational requirements. By embracing ELNs, researchers can experience accelerated research progress while establishing a robust foundation for their ongoing scientific endeavours.

Increased Regulatory Compliance

Beyond the obvious benefits like protecting sensitive data, intellectual property, and patents, an excellent digital lab platform ensures compliance with legal and cybersecurity standards; ELNs can also reinforce compliance with bio-risk and hazardous materials management regulations.

For example, ELNs can include features that facilitate proper handling, storage, and disposal of biological and hazardous materials. They provide audit trails and generate reports, simplifying compliance demonstrations during inspections or audits. In addition, ELNs enable project- and user-based organisation, rather than just the rigid and traditional user-based organisation seen in paper lab notebooks. Thus, the protocols, samples, and data from multiple individuals working on a specific project can be accessed from a single place within the ELN. This enables more accurate tracking of operations, as there may be personnel turnover throughout the course of a project or preparation of a manuscript.

In a review published in the Journal of Biosafety and Biosecurity, Sun et al. recommend using digital lab platforms to ensure safety, efficiency, and compliance with bio-risk management regulations in biosafety laboratories (BSLs).

These digital solutions streamline data collection, track the movement of biological and chemical samples, and maintain up-to-date Standard Operating Procedures. ELNs offer simple interfaces and customisable features for dealing with challenges, such as genetically-modified (GM) specimens, radioactive samples, or cytotoxic materials. 

By embracing ELNs and other digital lab solutions, researchers can enhance compliance with bio-risk management regulations, improve data traceability, and streamline processes related to handling hazardous materials. 

Enhanced Lab Personnel & Student Experience

ELNs offer a reliable and efficient way to maintain up-to-date records of experiments and research data. Equipped with digital features, these solutions enable scientists to collect, organise, templatise, and analyse data with improved efficiency. This saves time and ensures that information is readily accessible whenever needed.

Another notable advantage of ELNs is their positive impact on student learning experiences. Research from Riley et al. has shown that ELNs facilitate learning in laboratory settings. Students benefit more from quickly searching and retrieving information, streamlining their workflow, and feeling more engaged and motivated in their work. ELNs also support team-based learning, fostering collaboration and knowledge sharing among students.

Besides supporting student learning, ELNs enhance interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge sharing among researchers. They enable scientists to collaborate more effectively with external partners, facilitating the transfer of knowledge and expertise and improving productivity and efficiency in the laboratory. 

By automating routine tasks such as data entry, calculations, and report generation, scientists can allocate more time to high-value research activities. Notably, ELNs that are interoperable with other systems are expected to add value to the everyday work of laboratory personnel, as they will further streamline workflows.

While adapting to change can be challenging for end-users, the benefits of a digital lab environment, backed with appropriate training and support, will undoubtedly have a positive and long-lasting impact on the experience of research staff and students working in laboratories.

Conclusion

In conclusion, electronic lab notebooks benefit organisations regarding research management and operations. While the use of ELNs and lab digitalisation is dependent on the internal rollout and support structure for these systemic changes, the evidence suggests that they can: 

  1. Contribute to more efficient and collaborative research processes, which can ultimately lead to faster publication times.
  2.  Facilitate compliance through improved tracking, documentation, and auditing.
  3.  Improve the laboratory experience of students and lab personnel by reducing their administrative workload and freeing up time for their high-value work (i.e., performing research and data analysis and preparing manuscripts).

Our product, eLabJournal, is more than just an ELN. It is an all-in-one comprehensive Digital Lab Platform (DLP) for managing your research data, protocols, and inventory as well as having the capacity to integrate with existing research systems. 

Contact us for your free 30-day trial and/or a demonstration to see for yourself!

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