Riley St Clair, PhD
5 Tips to Keeping a Lab Notebook
Let’s face it - it’s difficult to remember what we did last Tuesday, let alone the details of a week-long experiment from last summer that your advisor just asked you to repeat. The best way to save your future self (and colleagues) a headache, is to keep a detailed record of what you did for each step of your experiment. Here’s where the lab notebook comes in.
Keeping a detailed lab notebook is crucial for scientists in any field. Lab notebooks allow us to have thorough record-keeping of each aspect of our experiment, from the purpose to our conclusions.
Tips for Keeping a Good Lab Notebook
Here are a few general tips to keeping a lab notebook that you and others can reference (and understand!) for years to come.
Digital or paper? The format matters less than the content so use whatever method works best for you. If you go the classic paper notebook route, there are designated notebooks out there - but they can be expensive. As long as you use a notebook that doesn’t have easy-to-remove perforated pages, it will work great. For digital options, you can use word processing software such as OneNote* or there are web-based platforms, but note that they usually have a monthly fee.
Use a pen. When you write in a paper notebook, it is important to use ink as we don’t want to erase any notes. This way, you and others will be able to follow your rationale and logic. If you make a mistake when writing in pen, it is best to strike out the words with one line so you can still visibly see the crossed-out note. If you use a digital notebook, be sure to resist using the delete key to erase. Instead, use the strikeout font formatting option like this.
It’s okay to write in shorthand. We know it takes time to record what you do and what you observe in your lab notebook, so writing in short-hand is okay. But if they are not common symbols or abbreviations, like [C] for concentration, then it’s best to include a legend early on in your lab notebook to help future readers make sense of your notes.
Include reference protocols. The first time you do an experiment, write detailed notes about the procedures and methods. Since reproducibility in science is important for our confidence in the experimental results, you are likely to repeat the experiment at least a couple more times. When you repeat the experiments, we recommend referring to the protocol page in your notebook. This way, you’ll save time and can focus on recording your observations and making note of any deviations from the original experiment. Important experimental details that you may want to include could be time, temperatures, reagents and equipment used.
Include a Table of Contents. How many times have you spent too long flipping through your lab notebook looking for a particular experiment? The best way to save time in the future is to save the first page of your lab notebook for an ongoing table of contents. Every time you start a new experiment, start it on a new page and add the title of the experiment and the page number to the table of contents.
*Check out this paper on using OneNote as a digital lab notebook. It describes helpful tips such as standardizing a way of saving each file and using timestamps.
So what should you include in your Lab Notebook? Here are 8 Sections to Include in Your Lab Notebook for every experiment you do:
Title of experiment
Date - if it’s a multiple day experiment, also indicate when you start a new day.
Purpose of experiment - why are you doing this experiment?
Concept - briefly, add notes or a schematic here to show how the experimental technique works. This section helps you realize any parts of the protocol that you don’t quite understand. We recommend asking your advisor or labmate to help answer any questions.
Expected results - add notes on your hypothesis and prediction or a predicted graph/schematic of your results.
Procedures - include both the protocol (what should happen) and your modifications and observations (what actually happened). It is also helpful to note where reagents are stored so you can easily find them again and which reagents need to be thawed or kept on ice. Here, it is also great to get into the habit of showing your work when calculating lab math such as making solutions or dilutions. Don’t feel confident when it comes to calculations in research? Check out our lab math resource.
Results - record any data or final observations here. This could take the form of qualitative observations and/or raw quantitative data in a table or paragraph. You could also include an image such as a scan of a DNA or protein gel.
Conclusions - briefly, interpret your results in a scientific context. Was your experiment successful or not? How do you know? If it wasn’t successful, what do you think happened during the procedure? What do the results indicate for your overall research project?
Following these tips can help you keep a detailed record of what you did in your experiments. Doing so will save you time when you are repeating experiments or doing follow-up projects, and help you write your exciting results to publish in a scientific journal. Your future self will thank you!