How laboratory digitIzation & automation is paving the way for research integrity

Technological advancements shape our daily life, from the way we communicate to how we function. This also applies within the laboratory. Scientists’ interactions with technology are shaping the ways in which research is conducted, for the better. Whether through hardware or software, lab scientists’ routines are adapting to the changing lab environment, through lab digitization and automation. This tends to make labs less prone to errors, while improving the outcome of research. Hence lab digitization and automation have considerably enhanced the integrity of research.

Laboratory digitization

The most widely-known form of digitization in the scientific community is the electronic lab notebook, or ELN. It is proving crucial for large R&D projects, where varying levels of authority are required, so that different members of the lab have differing control and access over content. However, ELNs are not solely benefited by large research organizations. It is equally helpful in academia and smaller group sizes. 

ELNs help to enforce research integrity through full audit trails, where the changes made are tracked and recorded, so that valuable data is never lost. This also ties into data integrity: as the data cannot be deleted, the research can’t be misleading, or prone to error. Moreover, a nifty feature of ELNs, is that users can Sign & Witness content according to standard compliance regulations including FDA CFR 21 part II . This allows for rapid and easy quality control, so that research can move through lab departments more effectively. Lastly, a very simple feature of ELNs: by switching from a paper lab book to an electronic version, no misinterpretations can be made on the quality of the data. No more, “I think that looks like a 4, not a 9.” You can’t fudge up type!

Laboratory automation

Bench scientists working alongside robots is becoming more commonplace, albeit still a long way off from being widely adopted. What seems to be more customary these days is to have automated processes, such as pipetting robots, or automated workstations, to relieve scientists from performing monotonous tasks, providing them with more time to focus on critical tasks. 

However, total replacement of bench scientists in favour of robotics in the laboratory may not be ideal. In the automotive industry, Toyota is replacing its almost-completely automated production line with more human components. They noticed more frequent defects when the production line was solely run by robots. It seemed that the robots were unable to distinguish if a component’s measurement was half a millimetre off, which would be easily recognised by the human eye.

This can be extrapolated back to the laboratory. The lab could be more prone to defects if the whole process is solely perpetrated by robots. However, the use of robots alongside bench scientists makes the lab work with more efficacy. Therefore, co-bots, a term used to describe laboratory robotics that aid the work of bench scientists, can help to conduct highly repetitive tasks with high accuracy, in order to enhance research integrity.  

To bridge the gap between lab automation and digitization, a fully-integrated Laboratory Execution System is becoming customary. These systems allow data from lab devices to be automatically stored onto software. Moreover, procedures in ELNs can be made into SOPs which can, in turn, be executed remotely via the software. This helps to maintain a structured methodology, so that the variables can be controlled, enforcing research integrity.

As the lab adapts to the standards of Industry 4.0, the level of research integrity rises alongside the growth in laboratory digitization and automation. 

By Claudia Telling

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