Your lab notebook is a foundation to your research manuscript. It serves almost as a rudimentary draft of your research story. A well-kept laboratory notebook not only leads to effective reporting but it also reduces headache.
In the beginning, when first keeping a lab notebook, there can be a lot of trial and error. However, by incorporating these tips at the get-go will minimize the error portion.
Why keeping a formal laboratory notebook is important
Detailed notes are the only way to keep track of what you did and how you did it. Furthermore, the formal nature of the laboratory notebook ensures certain records are always made and that they’re made the same way. These standards are deemed necessary by your organization in order to ensure scientific conduct and reproducibility.
Beyond that, however, are several other reasons a formal record is crucial (Hunter & Hughey, 2007):
- Promotes accurate collaboration.
- Promotes reproducibility not just for other researchers but for yourself as well.
- Maintains the reasoning behind your experimental flow.
- Serves as the building blocks of your research paper’s methods, results and conclusion.
- Serves as a log of all observations and anomalies.
- Becomes a helpful troubleshooting tool.
- Allows you to answer specific experimental questions.
- Can help defend your intellectual property, particularly when it comes to patents.
When a lab notebook isn’t properly organized or maintained, you’ll find yourself scrambling to figure out what sample went into the 4th lane of your gel, or why you ran a PCR for the specific primers you chose, or did you run an ELISA – you remember running that ELISA, but you can’t remember when or find the paper towel you wrote the details on (yes a paper towel – bad habits must be broken quickly).
1. Avoid bad notebook habits
It is very easy to form bad habits when keeping a lab notebook. Some of these habits stem from simply not knowing a better way. Other bad habits are formed from poor examples, poor guidelines or poor time management.
In any case, it’s easy to break bad notebook habits by first recognizing a few examples of them.
- Avoid the chore mentality of lab notebook entries. The notebook is sacred.
- Avoid pencils. Use pens (better yet, waterproof pens)
- Avoid scribbling out mistakes. Draw a clear line through a mistake instead. Mistakes are helpful research tools.
- Avoid post-it notes and scrap paper for informal notetaking.
- Avoid cursive. Write in print. Remember, your lab notebook is also a reference to others, which will need easily read by others.
- Don’t get out of a routine. Delaying your entries will cause a major backlog.
- Don’t forget dates and page numbers.
2. Get familiar with your institution’s preferred structuring.
Different organizations have different requirements for how to maintain and organize your lab notebook. For instance, some universities might require the date, page number and the purpose of your entry followed by the methods used and results observed.
When you get started with yours, find out from your principal investigator what their preferences are and look up the standard’s on your institution’s website.
3. Make use of a secondary, unofficial notebook
This third tip comes with caution. Some will regard this as a bad lab practice, so it’s up to your needs and your organization’s requirements.
Due to the formal nature of the official lab notebook and its methodical entry approach, writing well and neatly as you go along can be challenging. Sometimes, this is how the bad habit of writing things on post-it notes or scrap paper with the hopes of future transcription develops.
Instead, use a secondary bound notebook as an informal write-up of your procedures and observations. You can use your secondary notebook in any way that suits you, but the benefit is that it’s an informal place to quickly jot down what you’re doing as you do it. Some people use it to quickly write in any notes about a PCR they’re running, what specific materials they’re using or any specific calculations. You might also enter observations.
If you do this, it’s important to be extremely disciplined in your approach. Everything you enter in your secondary notebook will still need to be entered into your official lab notebook. These entries; however, are going to be written more structured, with neater handwriting and more depth.
When keeping a secondary notebook, there are some things to keep in mind:
- Always date your entries.
- Always head the entry with the same title in your official notebook so that you remember what your informal entries pertained to.
- Transfer the information over daily.
- While your handwriting might not be as neat, be certain you’ll be able to recognize what you wrote a few hours later.
4. Create a wider margin in the pages of your lab notebook for rough documentation and notes.
If you cannot keep a secondary notebook, you might be able to either keep a notes section within each entry, or draw a vertical line down the page, expanding the margin for notes.
Keep in mind, whatever you jot down must be transferred over to the structured portion of your lab notebook in a timely manner. Furthermore, this section can easily get out of hand and feel cluttered depending on how much room you give yourself. Be sure to date each entry, even time stamp it so when you refer back to those notes, you know when you took them and why.
5. Use OMRAD (objective, methods, results and discussion) for your lab notebook structure
One of the challenges of keeping a laboratory notebook is knowing what information to include.
While the advice is to be overly detailed, this can still feel broad. However, if you adhere to a strict OMRAD structure (objective, materials/methods, results and discussion) you’ll already be including a lot of important details.
This advice can still be a little broad seeming, so let’s dive in a little deeper.
- Objective: Here you’re writing the purpose of this procedure. Why are you doing it? What should the outcome be? Why did you choose the method you chose?
- Materials/Methods: Be very detailed here. Include information about the reagents used, including concentrations, volumes and why they were selected (when this is relevant). For the methods, detail what protocols were used and why they were used. If you tailored the protocol, be sure to include the original specifications along with the changes made, and provide information about why you made those changes.
Don’t forget to include very detailed components about your experimental setup such as how many lanes were ran, what samples went into each lane or each tube, what strains were used and why, etc.
What, why and how much are key elements of information in this section.
Additionally, it’s recommended you include any unusual details during your procedure. For instance, you weren’t able to use your personal pipettes or you ran your experiment on a different machine from what you’ve been used to. Or the lab’s temperature was unusually cold. Or perhaps you modified the protocol you were using.These little details will help you troubleshoot if a problem arises, and they also lend to the idea of experimental reproducibility.
Here is a brief list of some things to include in your materials and methods section, and remember to always have detail about why you used each approach when it’s pertinent.
- Results: Here, you’re going to include the objective data. This could be in the form of tables, charts, photos, etc. When using images, you’ll want your pictures clearly labeled. For instance, the samples used in each lane or tube and what the results were. Being detailed about this information will help you later recall how you analyzed your information or why you moved on to the following step.
- Discussion: Summarize your results and its impact in the discussion section (Heroux, n.d.). This will later become a great tool as you approach your research manuscript.
Include detailed observations in your results section. Some organizations might require your notebook to have an observations section.
In this section you’ll evaluate the results, and explain why you analyzed it the way you did. You’ll also explain whether it accomplished your research objectives, and how and why it did.
The discussion section also paves the way for your next experimental step. Based on the results and their meaning the next logical step is this…
It’s possible that another research question has arisen given the information. The discussion section is your place to detail this as a way of introducing your next step.
Remember that mistakes and failures are also equally important. Perhaps you did a colony screening, but you got no results. You can use the discussion section to explain why you think this happened and what you intend to do next to solve to test this. For example, this might warrant the use of a different antibiotic.
6. Ask your PI for advice
Your PI might provide you with the general standards for keeping your laboratory notebook, but you might want to take a moment to ask specific questions. For instance, if he or she does inspections, what are they looking for? What characteristics have they noticed that lead to good notebook keeping? Can you keep a secondary notebook for scratch work and notes? If not, can you allocate a portion of each notebook entry for informal note taking? Find out if you can include more information beyond what is outlined by your lab’s policy.
7. Schedule time each day for your lab notebook
Some labs might have strict notebook checks, others might not. When strict checks and signoffs aren’t happening, it is easy to fall out of a routine.
There is another hurtle, especially when there is no oversight – it’s easy to get so caught up in the doing that you can’t find time for the writing.
To overcome these obstacles, the best thing to do is to block out a specific time dedicated to daily cleanup and entries in your laboratory notebook.
If you used a secondary notebook for scratch work, it’s time to formalize your day’s entry. If you have an expanded margin with notes, use that time block to organize information into the formal area of your notebook.
This is also a good time to tape in your printed protocols or images of results and clearly write descriptions about these components.
When you have a time block, be strict about this period. When this routine gets broken just once, it’s easy for it to get broken again.
8. Schedule time for review
Reviewing your notes regularly can help you draw better conclusions about your research. It is recommended that you build review time into the same time block as your lab notebook upkeep.
Furthermore, it wouldn’t hurt to hold a weekly review of your lab notebook and notes, especially as you move into other stages of your research.
One of the reasons a regular weekly checkup can help your lab notebook is because a second look can improve comprehension. You might realize that you’re neglecting a very vital piece of information in your regular notebook management. From this review, you now know to include it. The review may help you with an experimental hurtle, or help you think about your experiment in different ways.
9. You can tape and paste typed information
It can get tedious writing down the same experimental steps over and over, but including this information within each entry is extremely important because it allows you to also document any changes made or special circumstances or observations that occurred during the procedure.
Since writing the same steps down over and over will give you a severe hand-cramp, some institutions allow you to print out and tape or glue typed-information into your notebook.
Therefore, if you’re working with the same protocol every day, print out extra copies. Tape it in your notebook and pen-in any changes as you go along. Double-sided tape can also make this task easier.
The same can be said for tables and figures you need to include. Sometimes it’s easier and neater if you have a typed version.
Most institutions will require you to date stamp the printed paper, and this is just good lab practice anyway.
10. Write information down as you go along
Some places will require you to make your notes as you go along, but not all places. Even still, this is a good practice.
One of the biggest benefits to writing everything down as you go along is you will become aware of any issues or missed steps. If your experiment didn’t go as expected, now you have the answer about why.
11. Track your failures and mistakes
The idea of recording your mistakes and failures seems scary, especially when you factor in the cost of reagents.
Despite how frightening it can be to be responsible for waste and get something wrong, record of this information serves as a learning tool. Just the act of writing down that you forgot to add your primers, will make you more careful about that step in the future.
This record will also allow you to see and improve on any procedural weaknesses.
12. Confidently answer these questions with the information in your lab notebook
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Mechanical Engineering’s lab notebook requirement, you’re keeping a good lab notebook if you can answer these questions:
- “Can someone else, with an equivalent technical background to your own, use your notebook to repeat your work, and obtain the same results?”
- “Could you come back six months later, read your notes and make sense of them?”
Furthermore, the information recorded should be detailed enough to allow you to also answer these questions:
- Would my reasoning for choosing this experiment justify my methodology to anyone else reading this lab notebook?
- Could you come back in six months and understand why you got the results you got or analyzed the results the way you did?
- Could you come back in six months and fully understand your experimental setup?
13. Keep your research manuscript in mind
Your lab notebook is going to be foundational to your manuscript’s materials and methods, results and discussion sections.
The information you record is going to allow you to flip through and understand what you did, why you did it and how it turned out.
If this is your first research paper or presentation, anticipating exactly what you need before approaching the major writing step is going to be challenging. However, there are some fundamental elements to consider.
- What is my overall research objective?
- What procedures are recorded in my lab notebook that helped me solve this problem?
- Why were those procedures chosen?
- In what order were they conducted?
- Were there any odd observations or special circumstances relevant to the overall results?
- What products and how much did I use?
- What statistical calculations relevant to my paper were used and why?
- What software programs were used, and why?
- What were my observations and results?
- What was the impact of this research?
- What did this answer, and what is left unanswered?
This list could easily grow, but these are at least the initial considerations to help you connect your lab notebook to your research manuscript or presentation.
14. Keep other researchers in mind
Imagine getting to a new lab, and the PI hands you a stack of lab notebooks and says, “Everything you need to know about the project is in here.”
If the notebooks are well-organized, going through them and making sense of them should be relatively easy. But if the notebooks were illegible, poorly structured and poorly detailed, they will be almost useless.
Therefore, when you are approaching your own laboratory notebook, consider future researchers. Give them all the information you would have wanted yourself. Anticipate questions and answer them.
Always make sure if another researcher had your handbook as a manual, they would be able to reproduce exactly the same experiment and get exactly the same result.
If this tip needs to be a little more self-serving, consider collaborators and consultants who might need to refer to your notebooks to work with you. It’s in both of your interests to maintain extremely detailed information.
If that’s not enough, consider yourself the future researcher who might need your lab notebooks. Have you ever reviewed your college notes for a final exam and found some sections impossible to read or missing that one thing the professor said. Future you is also a researcher to keep in mind. Give yourself every tool available for success.
15. Leave extra spaces for routine sections and things you’ve missed.
Because a lab notebook has structure requirements, you might find yourself out of space when you realize you’ve left something out or had more to write than expected.
Anticipate these situations and leave yourself extra room to go back and fill in observations and data you might be waiting on.
In a situation where you didn’t leave yourself enough room, if your institution permits it, include a sort of appendix at the end of each of your entries where these observations and notes can be entered. Make sure to head them appropriately. For instance, if your addition corresponds to your materials section, label the supplemental entry “supplemental materials and methods.” At the bottom of your actual materials section, you might indicate where the supplemental entry can be found “see page 64 for supplemental materials entry.”
- Your lab notebook is a primary source for your research manuscripts and presentations.
- Regular maintenance and strong record keeping enables your lab notebook to be a valuable manuscript resource.
- Consider the needs of your ultimate research objective and your manuscript when making notebook entries.
- Notebooks not only allow other researchers to accurately replicate your experiment, they also allow you to.
- Excellent record keeping allows your lab notebook to be a useful troubleshooting tool.
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