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SharePoint as an Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) – seeing both sides

Posted by Aaron Norman on Apr 21, 2015 2:18:00 PM

Can SharePoint work as an ELN? I get asked many questions about using SharePoint as an ELN and it seems like a good time to take stock and sum up the various points, both pro and con.

Firstly I’ll review SharePoint and some of the strong features that are absolutely required for an ELN such as collaboration, audits and versions. Then I’ll discuss what is missing from SharePoint and why it might be worth considering a commercial Electronic Lab Notebook.

Where SharePoint can work well as an ELN:

My experience with SharePoint as an ELN goes back to 2010 when KineMatik first started developing a SharePoint based ELN. We already had developed an ELN on a different Content Management System (Content Server from OpenText) so we understood the development required to extend SharePoint to include the key features required by ELN users. There were some very interesting features of SharePoint 2010 that we felt would be very useful to include. With this in mind, here’s where I think SharePoint works well as an ELN: 

  •          Collaboration - Great for collaboration and document sharing.
  •          Workflows - Workflows are available but they may require a developer to configure them. There are, however, many other 3rd party components that enable workflow configuration by non-developers.
  •          Familiar - Where R&D users are already using SharePoint, they appreciate the familiar MS Office environment
  •          Signature - SharePoint can use Microsoft signatures or other 3rd party signatory tools.
  •          Searching - Searching for text based information.
  •          Cost – SharePoint may be considered free by some, if it has already been implemented within the organisation. So the apparent cost of using it as an ELN is compelling

So what’s the gap between SharePoint and a commercial ELN?

It all really depends on what your requirements are. Some organisations have custom developed their ELN on SharePoint and it seems to work well for these companies. However, there are other organisations that would never be able to use SharePoint due to the lack of extensive ELN features. In brief these are some of the key points that need to be considered:

  •          What are your most important ELN requirements, and does SharePoint address them?
  •          Do you require domain specific capabilities (usually chemistry, biology, integration to laboratory equipment or systems)?
o    Is there a vendor solution available to expand SharePoint for your requirements?
o    For searching outside MSOffice formats, for example for chemical or biological structures, do vendor solutions integrate to SharePoint Search or is additional custom development needed?
o    Do SharePoint native structured data (lists) meet the needs of the scientists, especially those who may already have worked on commercial ELN?
o    Is SharePoint able to search for and report against structured data?
o    Is custom development an option if vendor solutions are not an option?
  •          Will the IT department allow the SharePoint solution to have custom development added?
  •          Do you have internal resources to develop and maintain the custom solutions?
  •          What will the final R&D user interface look like? It is important to ensure that any user interfaces are designed for the researcher’s world. Feedback from pilots was that the interface was just SharePoint and not a true ELN.
  •          Has there been a real look at what a commercial ELN can do and if those additional features would be useful to the organisation?
  •          Can SharePoint scale with the amount of R&D data created? R&D users in particular create a lot of data in comparison to most users who use SharePoint to consume data.
  •          Is SharePoint being pushed on R&D because it is an easy/cheap option for IT/management?
  •          Can your information governance requirements be fully met with SharePoint?
  •          What is the actual total cost of ownership of custom development?


So in summary SharePoint can be a useful tool when configured or customised, as a simple ELN. It might even be a useful stepping stone between paper based systems and a commercial ELN.

However, for anyone who has used a commercial ELN, their expectations extend well beyond what SharePoint can deliver on its own. By the time you add on the custom fits to SharePoint, the result may be something less flexible than a commercial ELN. 

If you have any questions or would like to discuss this further, please contact me at anorman@kinematik.com.

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