How to Keep a Lab Notebook

The Problem:post-it-croppedltgrey

The lab notebook is probably the single most important document you maintain as a scientist.  It records protocols, stores data and serves as a legally-binding record of your work.  But let’s be honest, we all neglect our notebooks to some degree.  This is nothing to be proud of, but it’s reality.  Sometimes it’s our fault – “we’ll download that data from the computer later”… and sometimes it’s more naïve “we just didn’t know what to do.”  Unfortunately, neither is a good excuse.

The Solution:

What follows are 3 steps to keeping a proper lab notebook.

If organization doesn’t motivate you, keep in mind that a properly kept notebook could win you millions by proving, for example, that you were actually the first person to synthesize that billion-dollar cholesterol drug.

Try it yourself:

Step 1. Use a bound lab notebook.

It is not uncommon to see lab notebooks kept on looseleaf paper stored in 3-ring binders.  I have been guilty of this mistake myself.  As a legal document, looseleaf notebooks are particularly weak given the ease of which an experiment could be artificially dated and placed anywhere in the notebook.

Step 2. Record every experiment in a uniform style.

There will come a point at which you’ve pursued so many different ideas on a project that you’ll forget why you set half of the experiments up in the first place.  Notebooks should be clear enough that when you or future labmates need to look through them, it doesn’t induce a migraine within 30 seconds.  As such, each entry should have the following sections, written in ink:

  • Title and date: Pretty self-explanatory.  The more specific the title, the easier it will be on you later.
  • Purpose: A one or two-sentence explanation of why you’re doing the experiment.  This can also include diagrams, charts, sketches, psychic visions – anything that helps convey why this experiment is important enough to perform.
  • Procedure: A step-by-step description of how the experiment is carried out.  It should be in enough detail that others could repeat it by reading this section alone.  It includes solvent systems, elution gradients, instrument names, the works.
  • Results: This section includes the raw and processed data.  If it’s a gel, TLC plate, graph or any other physical item, tape it in.
  • Conclusion: A summary of the experiment.  Did it work?  If not, why?  What should be changed next time?  Did the result lead to a new hypothesis?  Will graduate school ever end?  These are all relevant questions for this section.

Step 3. Line and sign.nobelsmalltype

At the conclusion of the experiment, draw a horizontal line under the last sentence and sign your name below it.  This indicates a completed experiment and prevents the addition of fraudulent information at a later date.

Let’s be honest, paper notebooks have their limitations.  Could someone fill in an earlier date for each experiment at a later date? Probably.  Or rewrite the entire book over again with adjusted data? Yep.  Although additional information such as emails and instrumentation records may be used in court as evidence of a discovery date, it is nearly impossible to police every notebook in real-time.

Electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) are becoming popular in big pharma and biotech companies, but we’re still on the front end of this movement.  These next-generation notebooks reduce tampering with data, create uniformity among notebooks and increase searchability of experiments.  Undoubtedly, this is the future of lab notebooks.

But like the old person at the grocery store paying with a check- you can call me old-fashioned. I think I’ll always prefer drawing a mechanism or working out a hypothesis using good old pen and paper.

Developed any notebook style of your own?

13 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Dazor

    wrote on July 27, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    I moved to writing everything on my computer. My lab notebook is a word sheet for every project (because you always have more than one project running). Every experiment is marked basically by the same guidelines that Alan has posted. Yet, since current experiments are usually based on the older ones with new adjustments, I find it easy to cut and paste most of the sections that were not changed. Also, since most of the results you get from experiments are in electronic form, they are imbedded in the word file either as figures, excel sheets, graphs ext. You can also add a link in your word file to a folder that stores all the additional data for the experiment. And as always, don’t forget to backup.

  2. dayman

    wrote on July 27, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    My style is chaos, which, uh, should probably be modified. Thanks for the reminder about how there are better ways than my finely tuned "piles of crap" technique.

  3. alan@benchfly

    wrote on July 27, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Great system- the cut-and-paste ability is huge. I like the bound, numbered notebooks for a similar reason- in the "Procedures" section you can just put "same as 025, but with the following modifications". Legally, it probably works well since the file would say the exact date it was last modified. You just have to be careful not to modify and save the file at a later date (eg, accidentally re-saving when cutting and pasting from it).

  4. 13columns

    wrote on July 28, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    I tried to switch to keeping a notebook on the computer, but I found it difficult to flip through experiments- especially since I was just creating Word docs. Plus, most of the time it's easier to just draw out the compound I'm working on by hand than to try to type the whole thing in. Even naming some of the intermediates can be a pain. Has anyone tried any online notebooks that seem to work well for chemists?

  5. phillas

    wrote on July 29, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    ELN's will be more prevalent in biotech/pharma, but inertia to change for bench scientists is higher than administrators/managers that want the change. Also, managers still want to be able to grab someone's notebook and see results.
    Personally, I still keep a notebook, and type up all my protocols and keep them in folders for each project. That way when the boss wants to know how a protocol works, he/she can email me and I can forward the file.

  6. PeterMadrid

    wrote on July 29, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    I still think a bound notebook has many advantages over electronic notebooks. It is much easier to jot down those important little notes and observations for an experiment in a paper notebook. Electronically, those things become much more easily lost. I work similarly to phillas in that when there is a key protocol or method, I usually have to type it up anyway, but the other 98% of the stuff in my notebook is perfectly adequately contained in the notebook on my lab shelf.

  7. katie@benchfly.com

    wrote on July 29, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Alan, how did you get a picture of my bench space? Just kidding. Thanks for the tips, I had to figure this out the hard way. I would suggest looking at the old notebooks in lab for likes/dislikes to come up with a style that best suits you. Sometimes the best ideas are bred from frustration with other people's messy data! haha.

  8. AX69

    wrote on July 31, 2009 at 2:28 am

    I write almost everything in my notebook but with time, it becomes quite challenging to go back to an old experiment when you don't remember when you've done it. I'm starting notebook number 6… To read my own handwriting is also a challenge in itself and I unfortunately don't think anybody but me would be able to find any semi-useful information

  9. Disaster-Proof Your Bench Now or You'll Hate Yourself Later | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on June 2, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    [...] How to Keep a Lab Notebook, we describe the basic requirements for properly documenting experiments.  While electronic lab [...]

  10. Roland

    wrote on June 4, 2010 at 5:32 am

    I personnally use dotproject to manage all my work . It gives many modules and options useful for keeping my research notes and having a view over my work.

  11. Susan

    wrote on June 7, 2010 at 6:01 am

    While we cannot argue that the laboratory notebook will go out of style any time soon, we at BioKM think its important to back up and organize all your research data and results. BioKM (http://www.biodata.com/) provides easy online laboratory management that is backed up daily to a secure server that makes sure you don’t lose any of the work you spent so much time on (and so that future researchers after you will not have to repeat experiments)

  12. Steve Parker

    wrote on November 30, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    It's very true that keeping an electronic lab notebook is much better than paper lab notebooks i used eNovator electronic lab notebook for my research work & found it useful.

  13. Lisa Stolzer

    wrote on June 7, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    I'm a middle school science teacher who is interested in finding an iPad based ELN app that would be appropriate for the age group I teach. Is anyone familiar with one?
    Thanks,
    Lisa Stolzer
    lstolzer@pmonts.org.

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