The laboratory information management system (LIMS) is a computerized data management program that provides the storage, retrieval, and analysis of all relevant laboratory data. When coupled with an electronic notebook (or ELN), it enables scientists to create detailed records in high-throughput workflows.
To understand why LIMS are so important for modern science, one must first appreciate how much typical experiments have changed over the last few decades. Newer techniques require scientists to rapidly generate immense amounts of data which must be carefully logged if they are ever to be properly interpreted. For instance, DNA sequencing generates sequences that are thousands of base pairs long; mass spectrometry creates lists containing hundreds or even thousands of values associated with ion abundances and fragmentation patterns; and NMR spectroscopy produces data sets consisting of hundreds or thousands of points, each with dozens of dimensions.
Over time, the quantity and complexity of scientific data has increased exponentially, even as computing power has become more powerful and less expensive. Thus, scientific researchers must also be ever-more careful to maintain accurate records in order to prevent wasted time and resources down the line. There is no “undo” button when it comes to experiments; every failed trial is a lost opportunity for success in some other part of the discovery process. LIMS were developed with this fact in mind: they dramatically improve scientists’ ability to keep track of what they’ve done and why by allowing them to record detailed information about past trials.
It is also important to consider the nature of scientific research itself when discussing why modern scientists need more sophisticated data management tools. Science demands more than ever from researchers today because it has become so complex. Not only are scientists required to be experts in their field, but they must also have a working knowledge of many disciplines besides their own. A scientist specializing in organic chemistry might have to consult databases on biochemistry, genomics, immunology, pharmacology, and mathematics for his or her experiments. LIMS help by allowing each expert access to all the information they need at once instead of making them work with multiple disconnected files that give incomplete information about certain aspects of an experiment.
Furthermore, scientific research is no longer simply divided between academia and industry. Specialization has led to the growth of many small research businesses, many of which work exclusively for large corporations. Some evidence suggests that academic scientists are starting to conduct more of their experiments in formal partnerships with private companies than they are working on government grants.
As the practice of science becomes increasingly commercialized, it is no surprise that laboratory managers have started requiring LIMS as an essential part of efficient data management. However, there is still much concern over how laboratories can afford ever-more expensive technology when budgets are already stretched thin. Fortunately, the costs associated with purchasing web-based LIMS software packages have recently become so low that even small laboratories can easily access them.