How to keep a laboratory notebook
Updated: Oct 28, 2019
A laboratory notebook is the most critical tool in a researcher's arsenal, more than the microscope or any other scientific instrument. Despite this fact, I often feel that it is not given the importance it deserves, especially among younger scientists.
This might come as a bit harsh, but if you don't have a lab book, you are at best a hobbyist in my eyes, not a scientist, and certainly not a reputable one.
With these strong feelings, I decided to give my unsolicited advice on how to keep a decent lab book.
Lab books are, first and foremost, a record of what you have done during your research career by meticulously documenting every experiment. The reason is pretty obvious: what makes science, science is its repeatability. If you don't take notes, in a couple of days you won't remember what voltage, current, molarity, etc. you used in your experiment, and therefore, you won't be able to replicate your experiment. Moreover, and perhaps even more important, others won't be able to replicate your results. This is the point where the lab book comes into play. So, let's take a look what should you consider when recording your experiments.
1- Lab books are more important than you think
Get a sturdy notebook to use as your lab book and do not use loose sheets of paper as your lab book.
Start by giving a simple title to your experiment describing what you want to do. Note down who is attending or doing the test. Write down the date and time of your experiment. This information is vital because the lab book is also a legal document. If it comes to that, it can play a role in determining who first made a particular discovery, which may determine whether you will be able to get a patent or not. So, your tough work on the lab book might have a monetary equivalence, depending on your lab book and note-taking skills.
2- Make an exhaustive list of steps you followed during your experiment on a particular day.
Write down every detail, and I mean every detail, about your experiment. So, you will be able to replicate your results, but perhaps more importantly, it will help you go back and troubleshoot what might have gone wrong in that particular experiment.
3- Print out images, graphs, tables and include them in the lab book
You can print images and include them in your notebook because a single image is worth a thousand words. This trick can save you time and add clarity to your notes.
4- Be explicit and transparent in your writing
Others coming to the laboratory after you should be able to read your notes, follow the instructions, and replicate your results. This is only possible when they can actually read and understand your notes. So, keep the following points in mind:
- write in a legible script,
- when you use a chemical write down its full name and its source clearly,
- if you give a sample a special designation, write down what this designation means.
5- Number your pages for future reference
If your pages of the notebook are not numbered, number them. Then, in the future, you can refer to a specific page for further details, such as naming convention, parameters, etc. This can save you time during the experiment.
6- Use only one lab book
Some people like to scribble quickly on a temporary notebook during the experiment and later on translate it to another, more organized notebook. I find this ineffective as you double the effort and there is also a non-zero chance that you will make a mistake when copying. It might even become a way for procrastination, so avoid it.
That being said, you can consider using a second lab book if that improves the efficiency of your note-taking. For instance, in our particular case, we came up with a format that allows us to note down all the parameters and details about samples during synchrotron experiments. This was very useful because we needed to be quick to use our beamtime more efficiently.
7- Lab book is only for recording your experiments
Don't use your lab book as a multipurpose notebook for meetings, seminar notes, etc. A lab book should be a clear record, and it should not be a jumbled mess of various notes. I use different notebooks for meetings and conference/seminar notes and my laboratory book.
8- Lab books are the property of the institution you are working for
Don't forget that lab books belong to your home institution. Some institutions/groups might even prefer to keep the original. That is normal and pretty standard. In most cases, you can make a copy for yourself when you hand in your lab book for future reference. If the lab requests a copy, give them a proper and clean copy. In some instances where the information is sensitive, you may be required not to copy the records, depending on who you work for.
9- Electronic vs. physical notebook?
There is a possibility to use electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs), which can boost the efficiency with which you take notes by including, for instance, a picture of your experimental setup, your parameters, etc. So, it is a legitimate option, and you decide to follow that route, given that your lab head or institute regulations allow this. If you use an electronic notebook be sure that you back it up regularly, otherwise you will be very, very sorry when all your notes vaporize if you lose the data in one of the various ways one can imagine; theft, orange juice (or coffee) spills, software bugs and so on.
Take your institutional and funding agency regulations about data protection into account when you are dealing with backups (in particular when you use third-party services). Below is a guideline from 2018 on ELNs as a starting place:
If you use a physical notebook, mark it with your name, e-mail address, and other contact details. Also, consider taking backup copies from time to time. I prefer, at least for now, physical lab books.
10- Use your notebook for brainstorming
Include your ideas in your notebook by describing them in words but also by sketches. Descriptive sketches are great for designing your next experiment and conveying your ideas to your colleagues. If you don't note down your thoughts, you will forget them. Even if you can't find the time to work on these new ideas right away, you will be able to revisit them later, and you will know where to find them.
I hope that this post helps you appreciate the importance of keeping a good record of your experiments.