Keeping a Good Notebook


The original computer "bug" — a moth caught in a electromechanical relay, and later pasted into Rear Admiral Hopper's systems notebook.

Keeping a good lab notebook may seem like a tedious and unimportant task, but it will pay great dividends in improved quality and reproducibility of your experiments. It is also extremely helpful when writing publications, because it provides a direct record of the details of your work.

There are many excellent discussions of how to keep a good notebook. Although individual styles vary, the following guides and references should help you to keep useful, concise and readable notes. Find a style that works for you, and stick to it religiously.

Remember, the idea is that you (or another worker) can go back and replicate any experiment, even years from now. This is a distressingly common occurrence, and should be considered normal for an ongoing research project. Your note-taking skills today can make or break your (or someone else's) research years from now!

Suggested Practice

The following approach has been successful for many students, but feel free to modify it to make it work for you:

  • Write only in permanent black or blue pen. Never use pencil or erasable ink.
  • Do not "scribble out" mistakes — instead, draw a single line through the incorrect part (leaving the original value legible) and enter the correct information above or to the side of it.
  • Start each new experiment on a new page in the lab notebook. "Chronological" or "narrative" formats (diary-like) are hard to follow unless you always finish one experiment before moving on to the next.
  • Put the date in the top, outer corner of each page as you fill in the pages.
  • Write down any interesting, unexpected or useful observation (e.g. 'solution gelled overnight', 'some particles remained on the surface', or 'a slight blue color may appear').
  • Cross out any blank space left on the page, to prevent later addition of material. Do not "save" pages for future work or results.
  • Avoid covering or obscuring text with pasted-in information. Use permanent glue, not tape. Consider an external storage system if you have many "inserts" (e.g. series of spectra).
  • Never go back and add information to a page, even if you highlight and date the new addition. Doing so shows that the notebook is not necessarily in chronological order (a big legal loophole!)
  • If your experiment spans multiple pages, make it easy to follow the thread through the notebook. I like to use the following notation placed in the top-left/bottom-right corner of each page:

(previous page is 53, next page is 58)

Keeping It Together

We recommend the following general approach for organizing your thoughts from day to day:

  • Title: Write the full title of the experiment at the top of the first page. An abbreviated title is acceptable for following pages. Copy the title into the Table of Contents at the beginning of the book.
  • Purpose: Before starting the experiment, write down, in detail, what you will be doing, and why. Briefly explain what you will be testing, what you expect to see, and how this result fits into the big picture. As a very rough guideline, this should be roughly a paragaph (1/6 page handwritten). This will help orient a future reader, and is a good place to put references to previous experiments that lead to the current one.
  • Procedure: Describe what you are doing, as you do it. Provide sufficient detail that another reasonably skilled person could exactly repeat the experiment. Aim to provide way too much detail — it's often a seemingly trivial thing (the pH, time between additions, coloration, fizzing, etc.) that leads to a breakthrough. Write out all calculations, note product numbers and lot codes of all reagents, etc. Describe and explain any deviations from the plan ('solution color wasn't dark enough, so doubled the amount of dye').
  • Results: List and summarize qualitative and quantitative results. Tables of readings, rough sketches of morphology, etc. belong here. Note any interesting observations, suspected equipment failures, sample mishaps, etc.
  • Conclusions: Before you leave the lab, take a few minutes to briefly summarize what you learned in this experiment. Be sure to clearly state your conclusions (this saves much time and puzzled head-scratching later), and note any protocol modifications or future directions suggested by the results of your experiment.

It is particularly important to write down your conclusions before moving on, as the columns of numbers and figures will become increasingly difficult to interpret with each passing day. You've been warned!

Sample Storage and Labeling

One particularly helpful suggestion is to label all reagents, samples and test articles with the current date and a notebook page reference in which the provenance of the sample is recorded. This makes it much easier to determine how a sample was prepared and whether it is important; this is particularly helpful when purging refrigerators and other spaces where "important-looking stuff" tends to accumulate over time.

A suggested method for notebook references on labels, in notebooks, or in protocols is to use an abbreviation like this:

RATNB03-105

This convention provides the initials (in red), a notebook number (blue) and page number (green) in a concise designation. All lab workers are encouraged to adopt this method, as it allows future researchers to unambiguously identify your samples.

Further Reading

The canonical reference is "Writing the laboratory notebook", by Howard M. Kanare. It is available at the OSU library, with call number Q180.58.K36 1985 (ISBN 0841209065). It is also available new and used from Amazon for about $10. Of particular interest are the extracts from famous people's notebooks, including a picture of the original "computer bug" — a moth found smashed in a relay in an early computer, and taped into Grace Hopper's notebook.

Central Michigan University offers some advice for keeping a good research notebook. Of particular value is the idea of keeping dates in a standard format — in Europe, '2/5/2009' refers to the 2nd of May, not Februrary 5! All dates should be written like '5-Feb-2009' to avoid this ambiguity.

Several varieties of lab notebooks are available at Chem Stores. The tear-out duplicates type tends to be a little fussy, and is unnecessary for most research lab work (but if having it encourages you to take good notes, then it's worth it!)

Legal Requirements

The notebook is a record of your work, and may serve as a legal document if a dispute arises over who discovered something, or when. Guidelines vary (and depend on the project and collaborators), so check with your PI or lawyer before starting.

Keep in mind that all notebooks are the property of the lab, and must be left with the P.I. as a permanent record of your work. It is wise to keep the notebook in your lab at all times, lest it (and your research notes!) become lost or damaged.