Maintaining a laboratory notebook

Here are some reasons why you might want to keep a laboratory notebook

  1. Recording data into a laboratory notebookTo provide yourself with a complete record of why experiments were initiated and how they were performed. You’ll forget if you don’t. Seriously: even in your youth your brain cells are senescing.
  2. To give yourself a centralphysical place to record your data, to note statistical outcomes, and to paste graphs that show results. Researchers who keep these items in separate places are unlikely to be productive scientists.
  3. To encourage sound thinking. Keeping a notebook gives you a forum to talk to yourself — to ask questions, to record important thoughts about the experimental design, and to speculate how your results might eventually be interpreted.
  4. To provide information to a person who is interested in continuing your research project, even if you deem that possibility hilariously unlikely. And if you’re doing important research and die an early, gruesome death, your lab-mates might want to pick it up. 
  5. To get rich. Not everyone sets out with the goal of patenting a process or contraption, but you might stumble onto something actually important, and in such an event you must have a notebook that supports your claims. 

What to use as a laboratory notebook

  1. Purchase a notebook that possesses a stitched binding. Spiral-bound notebooks are undesirable because it is too tempting to rip out pages in moments of frustration or when you make silly mistake. And glue-bound notebooks are bad because glue doesn’t last over time (e.g., cockroaches will eat glue). Ring binders and stacks of loose paper unacceptable.
  2. Some laboratory notebooks have a “carbon copy” function that allows a duplicated sheet to be created and then removed to a second, safer location. I think these notebooks encourage bad notebook procedures and should be avoided. A proper notebook has a lot of glued-in information (printed graphs, datasheet templates, photographs, product labels, etc.) that simply will not show up on the sheet below, so the “carbon copy” notebooks are only good for archiving written entries (use one for your diary, perhaps). If you really want a backup of your notebook, make a daily date with a Xerox machine. For the truly motivated and/or paranoid, take a photograph of your completed pages each day with your smartphone and store the files in a cloud or two. If you run a laboratory crawling with undergraduates, you might consider faking a notebook theft just to jar the students into considering these eventualities … it would be a good learning moment, plus good fun to see them all panic.
  3. Notebooks come in a variety of dimensions. Those larger than a standard page are convenient because you can easily paste in printer output without using scissors. On the other hand, smaller notebooks are much easier to lug around in field conditions, and look cute. There’s a lot to be said for cute.
  4. More expensive notebooks have much nicer paper, so if you like a smooth, non-fibrous surface to write on, spend the extra money. Nothing beats smooth, expensive paper to boost creativity and productivity (but that’s just me, and I have a paper and pen fetish).
  5. Spend the extra money for a notebook that has pre-numbered pages. You probably can figure out how to number them yourself, but it’s a pain and life is short.
  6. If your parents or mentor are springing for the notebook, you might opt for the really, really expensive variety that lays completely flat when open. It’s a small thing, but it grows on you.
  7. If you want to keep a digital notebook, take a look at these reviews at The Chronicle, Nature, Gradhacker, and Postdocexperience.

What to put on the outside of your notebook

  1. Put your full name and year of use on the front of notebook. And make it the actual year, not ’13. In 100 years that’s going to be so out of date.
  2. I also suggest adding your last name and date span (e.g., 2013-06 — 2013-12) on the spine so that you can find your research when it’s on a shelf with lots of other notebooks that look exactly alike (e.g., photograph). For writing on the spine, I recommend light-colored paint pens.
  3. Put your mailing address, phone number, and e-mail on the inside cover. This information is very useful when you foolishly leave your notebook somewhere. Tape a $5 bill to the inside front cover with a note saying, “I’ll give you another if you find this notebook.” If you’re research is priceless, it’s money well spent. Especially good to have wording like this if you do field research with your notebook.
  4. Bling. If the notebook is yours, take some pride in what you do and get crafty with the exterior. I’m especially fond of stickers from dangerous reagents. Good science is an inherently creative process, so I suspect most researchers have blinging talents, even if repressed by medication and years of scorn from colleagues.

Tips on how to keep your notebook

  1. Devote pages 1 and 2 to a Table of Contents (which you will fill in as time passes). Have 2 columns, one for the experiment name and one for the page number where an experiment starts, etc. If you come back to your notebook after 20 years, you will be able to quickly find the appropriate section of your notebook. This Table of Contents is also crucial for others who might want to use the notebook to reconstruct your activities.
  2. Never remove a page. This directive is to prevent unscrupulous researchers from “losing” data that might not have been favorable to their research objectives. If you rip out some pages you thought were unnecessary or had unfavorable caricatures of your colleagues, others might view the gaps as suspicious.
  3. If you make a mistake, draw a thin line through the word or number rather than obliterating the entry with a blob of ink. You might decide, upon reflection, that your original entry was actually the correct one, and you will be glad that you can still read it.
  4. For the same reason, never use correction fluids (e.g., White Out) or strips of white laboratory tape.
  5. Write legibly. Your notebook does not have to be a work of art, but it should be easily readable by another person of average intelligence.
  6. Provide the full date whenever you make an entry. Always use the international standard format: YYYY/MM/DD (e.g., 2011/12/25). If you grew up writing dates a different way, change.
  7. There’s a fad in some fields to “recopy” notes into a different notebook at the end of the day. I think doing that is stupid. Sure, you might have fresh insight when you’re recopying data and such, but you’ll also introduce copying errors (yes, even you) even if you are proud of the better penmanship and layout. If you really think recopying is going to help your science, I suggest you record your “field” notes on one side of the notebook and then recopy and add insights onto the facing page. However, if you do fieldwork were it is likely that you’ll lose your notebook or it will be stolen by bands of thugs with machetes, recopying into a secondary notebook might make good sense. But if you have a smartphone or camera, just take daily photos of your pages and send them to the cloud.

What to write with

You should use a pen that can stand up to the dangers of the laboratory and also to time itself. Obviously, avoid felt tip pens and watercolors, but that leaves a lot of options out there. I did a quick experiment to compare the suitability of a sampling of pens. Briefly: I subjected test writing on strips of paper to various conditions to see how the ink behaved. Test conditions were: soaking (water, ethanol, methanol, or acetone), erasing, and baking (while moistened with water). These treatments are of course a subset of laboratory missteps but I only gave myself a day for the experiment since it’s not really earth-shattering science. Middle photograph below shows how the ink is removed by methanol. After treatment, strips were removed and pressed under filter paper to dry flat. Then I lined the strips up in their original orientation and photographed the sheet.

Here are some conclusions:

  1. The following pens seemed to perform well under the conditions I used: Pentel Hybrid Gel Roller, Sakura Gelly Roll (this company also makes Pigma Micron pens, which are great), Sanford Uni-Ball Gel RT, Sanford Uni-Ball Vision, Sanford Uni-Gel RT, Zebra Sarasa (this writes this best, and comes in a pleasing “blue/black” tint). I have a fondness for the Gelly Roll in part just because of the name, but they are becoming one of my favorites (I own probably 30 of these pens in various colors and ink types). [UPDATE: According to Ryan H., Sarasa formulation has changed … and no longer are water resistant. Sad news.]
  2. Avoid the “Pilot G2” line (they bled extensively in the organic solvents, and even bled when incubated with warm water).
  3. Do not use Sharpie (or equivalent) permanent markers for notebook entries: these markers were very good at resisting water spills, but were removed by many solvents. More importantly, permanent markers tend to bleed through to the underlying page, which makes for rather sloppy, illegible laboratory notebooks. Sharpie ink also fades over time, especially when used on plastics such as microfuge tubes or plant stakes. I’m not sure whether the fade is sublimation or interaction with some wavelength of light.
  4. Do not use pencils. Although graphite is resistant to many solvents, it turns out to be really easy to erase. If you erase something that in hindsight was rather important, you’ll feel like an idiot. Also, the folks at the patent office will laugh their heads off if you show up with a pencil-filled notebook.
  5. Do not use fountain pens. They usually have water-soluble inks that will be compromised from even minor beverage spills or rain. Also, if you fall asleep and drool on a page, you’re in trouble. However, if you are a fountain pen addict like I am (see my favorite pen, if you’re curious), you can use your pen in the laboratory if you buy yourself Bulletproof Black ink from Noodler’s. I haven’t tested it extensively, but it seems to be fabulous, and is actually guaranteed to be permanent until the End of Days, which is not that far away.
  6. Ball point pens, despite strong opinions to contrary by some of my friends, are often terrible at resisting solvents and smears. If your mentor insists on ballpoints, sneer knowingly.
  7. I didn’t test Crayons. If you use them, just be sure to stay in between the lines.
  8. If you work at a nuclear power plant, at the International Space Station, or are experimenting with dirty bomb designs, please be aware that radiation can affect ink. For details, read this (pdf).
  9. In my youth I used a Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph. But I didn’t take care of it and it died. But it was fantastic, and I feel bad about not including one in the above experiment. Give it a try if you are at an art store and can afford it.

What should go into your notebook:

  1. Include detailed notes on all discussions and thoughts on the experimental goals. This means, of course, that you should start making dated entries immediately rather than waiting until you get your experiment(s) started. Because some information might come via e-mailed suggestions (from your mentor or colleagues) or from online sources (PDFs or web sites), you might paste “miniaturized” versions of relevant passages directly into your notebook rather than spending the time to transcribe. If it has a scrapbook feel, that’s what you want. Post photographs, too.
  2. Eventually, include detailed experimental protocols that could be easily followed by another researcher. If you have typed out a detailed protocol in a computer file, print it out (shrinking it to make it fit nicely) and glue it into your notebook (it is worthless if you file it elsewhere). Give each experiment a name so that you can refer to it quickly in subsequent entries. All experimental protocols should be accompanied with clearly-worded hypotheses and goals, and indicate exactly what measurements are going to be taken.
  3. Provide full justification of all experimental details (species used, temperature, reagents, etc.). Justification might come as simple logic (stated, in your own words) or as references to other published research (e.g., voltages applied as per Frankenstein 1818, with full citation given).
  4. Annotate all calculations so that all numbers, concentrations, etc. are fully explained and would be interpretable by another researcher. Remember to include units.
  5. Give full details for all experimental organisms. Who provided seeds, plasmids, etc., and what information did they give you? Were seeds the result of open pollination, or were they from controlled crosses? Have lines used been subjected to thousands of generations of laboratory conditions or are they truly a wild strain? If you bought organism yourself, give source, delivery conditions, etc. Include catalog number (e.g., Burpee LE-23001) when possible.
  6. For greenhouse experiments, write down details of potting media (brand, type) and pot (shape, dimensions, color, brand). Also record when plants were watered, fertilized, repotted, or repositioned. If other people are asked to care for your plants, ask person to keep a detailed log of when plants were watered and fertilized.
  7. Record reagent details. Details include vendor (name, address, phone number; in case you want to buy more in the future) and product information (brand, product number, chemical structure, purity grade, lot number, date of mixing/production, expiration date, etc.). Whenever water is used, specify deionized, distilled, tap, cold, hot, sterile, etc.
  8. Record equipment details (brand, model number, sensitivity). In some circumstances it is important to record serial number, just in case there was something unique about the item you used. For growth chambers, always record bulb type and wattage (and brand name).
  9. Record field, greenhouse, laboratory, and growth chamber conditions such as temperature (in Celsius, ideally), humidity, barometric pressure, light levels, light/day cycle (hours of each, and when night starts), wind speed, wind direction, etc. Note that conditions sometimes change, so record these parameters often if variation is likely to affect your results.
  10. Sometimes, personal information should be noted. If you are interested in observing behavior of nearby wounded bulls, it might be good to note whether you are wearing a red shirt. Similarly, behavior of mosquitoes might be inadvertently changed if you smell bad or foolishly applied a coating of Axe Body Spray in the morning. Strange details like this can be important down the road. These personal details are especially important if you are conducting psychology research, where what you are wearing and whether you’re cute will influence the answers you get.
  11. Record names of people providing assistance with data collection, techniques, statistical advice, equipment loans, stipend support, supplies funds. Write this information down immediately so that you remember to include it in your future acknowledgements sections when you publish your research. Keep notes about phone conversations and e-mail interactions.
  12. Make quick drawings of experiment set-ups, location of experiment in laboratory or greenhouse, etc. For field experiments, include a sketch of where field site is situated. These sketches do not have to be works of art.
  13. Attach photographs that document key experimental details.
  14. On the day you first enter data into a statistical program, write down the file name and where the file is stored (e.g., DVD on shelf in room 101; backup on laboratory computer in “Backup folder”). Give your file an informative name (e.g., “Heat_exp1_2011-12-25.dat”) rather than “experiment1.dat” or “stats_hell.dat.”
  15. Make daily entries, even if to say just “checked for mortality in Heat Exp 1; no mortality yet. They certainly look miserable, though.”
  16. Specify purpose for each entry, and reference an experiment name. If you just wrote, “Censused” for a particular date, you wouldn’t have a record of which experiment you censused or what specific data you were collecting.
  17. If you happen to record some data directly onto datasheets (e.g., Excel spreadsheets that exist on computers or within ring binders), include dated entries for all such occasions: “entered data onto heat.xls spreadsheet.” Ideally, construct your spreadsheets so that you can paste them into your notebook, perhaps right after your experimental details are explained: you could “mark” this page with a flag so that you can easily add data to these pages.
  18. Detail all mistakes, problems with procedures, and lapses in data collection so that you can fully explain “odd” results at the end of your experiment.
  19. Use military time for all time entries. Or at least append AM/PM to all your times.
  20. All entries should be un-obscured by attached graphs, data sheets, photographs, etc.
  21. When you include datasheets, photographs, graphs, product labels, etc., use staple to cleanly and permanently attach ONE edge. The reasoning (thanks, Dr R. Whitmarsh) is that if you ever have patent-related scrutiny of your notebook, you don’t want it to appear that you might have hidden something underneath the attached paper. If your attachment itself has something on the back, it’s best to make a copy of the underside and attach this copy so it is visible … that seems fussy, but makes it easier to make a digital scan or photograph that page (it’s a pain if you need to fold over the attachment to make second copy). If you’re Type A, it’s a good habit to write near the attachment (or underneath it) what it is; if the attachment falls out or is stolen, you know what you’re missing. Avoid tape (it becomes brittle and yellow) and glue (it usually fails, unless archival quality).
  22. Avoid making entries that are wholly unrelated to your project (e.g., “Don’t forget to mail presents”).
  23. Include the full names and contact information for all collaborators (in courses, this translates to laboratory partners). You will sometimes have, “see X’s notebook for further info,” and these entries will only be useful to other researchers if there is good contact information at the start of a particular experiment.
  24. At the conclusion of your experiment, or at the end of your course, write or print out a full directory of all electronic files that relate to your experiment.
  25. Describe the locations of all computer media, data binders, seeds, samples, etc., so that items can be located by others in the future. This information is best in tabular form (perhaps as an Excel or Word table printed and glued into your notebook). All seeds, DNA samples, etc. should be fully labeled with your name and date so that it is clear which notebook should be checked to learn more about the history of the sample.
  26. Typically, the laboratory notebook should stay in the laboratory where the experiments were conducted (i.e., with your mentor or employer). If you can’t part with it, make yourself a Xerox.
  27. Digital cameras are really cheap, so if you do expensive, important science I recommend that you have 1 camera per project and equip the things with a clear label (“camera for archiving Joe’s notebook”) and to use Eye-Fi memory cards. At the end of each work day the researcher should take a photograph of each page (would take just 5 seconds per page). Eye-Fi card would then automatically beam high-resolution JPGs of each page to a secure server, or even multiple servers. Then when your experiment destroys the laboratory in big mushroom cloud, you still have a copy of everything and can repeat it. Also, when your trusted lab technician steals are your notebooks (like this person), you have a backup. Sketchy researchers in your lab will think twice about doctoring past entries if they know a JPG history is on a server somewhere. An additional benefit is that Principal Investigators can log into server on their iPhones to see laboratory activities even while sipping cocktails on the beach.

ⓒ 1997-2017 Colin Purrington