The Lab Notebook

Sam Debes

You wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. You’ve had a strange dream about the science you live and breathe, and now you’re thinking about the underlying problem in a new light. Eureka! You’ve had a revolutionary idea about how to solve a fundamental question in your field. This could win you a Nobel, you just need to confirm a few details about the experiments you’ve already done.

You jump out of bed and sprint down the hall to your desk, flinging open your lab notebook. You frantically rifle through the pages and scour for one entry in particular. Time seems to stand still, and finally you find it! Quickly, you skim your notes, but the details you’re looking for don’t jump out at you. You take a deep breath and read through from the top- still not there. Panic sets in… Why did you not record every detail of this experiment? This could mean the difference between life and death! You start a pot of coffee in the middle of the night and set to the task of trying to infer the details of what one-year-ago you had done.

While dramatic, every scientist can sympathize with how important it is to keep accurate, detailed information in a lab notebook. It’s so vital, in fact, that most grade-schoolers learn about “how to keep a lab notebook” in a sixth-grade science class. It seems elementary (and in a way it is), but its importance cannot be overstated. After all, keeping a faultless lab notebook is an art all its own. With this in mind, here are some back-to-the-basics tips for keeping a stellar lab notebook, helping future you avoid the crushing blows of utter disappointment.

Dedicate time every day to write in your lab notebook

Days in the lab can be unbelievably hectic. It’s important to write down crucial details while doing your experiment or analysis, but this can lead to incomplete entries. One good practice to ensure detailed entries is to set aside time daily for the sole purpose of writing in your notebook. Having dedicated time for this one task gives you the opportunity to revisit the notes you had previously jotted down, fill in any blanks, and reflect on what you did.

Title and number entries, and keep a table of contents for easy indexing

This one seems painfully obvious, but writing down the details of your experiment alone won’t do the trick. You also have to be able to easily locate the information. Title and number every entry, and list this information in a table of contents. This feature makes it easier to locate entries down the road.

Write about … everything

What’s important to write down in your notebook? Whether you’re in experiment or analysis mode, it’s essential to record certain elements: methods, results and interpretation. What reagents did you use and what lot number did they come from? Which of your precious Plexon U-probes recorded these beautiful data? What parameters did you use for your computational model? What did these methods lead to? And how do you interpret these data today (you may be pleasantly surprised by your train of thought when you revisit these entries)? Detail everything- even the things you think you will not need in the future.

Do what works for you

There’s no one right way to format your lab notebook. Experiment with different entry styles (but don’t let changing the format lead to neglecting information). Maybe something more concrete like a preallocated template is the best starting point. No matter what it is, find a format that works for you and stick with it. Once you come up with something you’re comfortable with, filling in the information will be second nature, making it harder to omit crucial details.

While most of these tips seem obvious, they’re meant to help you figure out a suitable procedure to document what you did, how and why you did it, and what you learned. At the end of the day, the real secret to a good lab notebook is practice. It’s a habit, and you have to actively choose to participate in it. Practicing good lab notebook routines can seem like a time sink, especially at the beginning. But future, on-the-brink-of-winning-the-Nobel-prize you will be thankful for the effort and detailed information. And even if future you don’t end up winning the Nobel, how will you be able to reflect on your genius (or chuckle at your naivety) if you don’t document it?


Written by Sam Debes