The fundamental difference is flexibility vs consistency

When I first started working in a biotech R&D group, I had the hardest time understanding the difference between an Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) and a Lab Information Management System (LIMS).

Both systems collect lab data. Both systems track experiments.

There are, of course, very practical differences between the systems. But it turns out they mostly boil down to a fundamental trade-off between flexibility and consistency.

The ELN, like the paper lab notebooks that it mimics, is a place to write down everything that you do and observer during an experiment.

It’s meant to capture any type of experiment and any possible situation.

To meet these requirements, ELNs are designed to maximize flexibility: They emphasize free-form notes, and optimize for capturing information over organizing it.

The LIMS, on the other hand, is intended to organize and improve the operations of a lab doing a large number of experiments.

It’s meant to make the experiments repeatable, reliable and traceable.

To meet these very different requirements, LIMS are designed to maximize consistency: They capture data in relational tables and automate many of the steps for both capturing and transforming the data.

So even though both systems may seem similar to the untrained eye, they sit at opposite ends of the flexibility/consistency spectrum.

To complicate things even more, some ELNs have a “registry” that allows users to capture data in relational tables to complement their free-form notebooks.

An ELN’s registry allows users to work at different points along the spectrum.

In practice, users will need to work at many different points for different tasks. Hence the need for ELNs, LIMS and other systems in between.