How to Keep a Lab Notebook
By Alan Marnett
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.
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.
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?