Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Laboratory Notebook-Keeping for Busy Scientists


If you are a perfectionist, your lab book is likely to be laid out neatly, your personal pride and joy. And I bet you never baulk at the thought of anyone casting a glance between its pages.

However, let me wholeheartedly confess that I could not bear the thought of keeping an overly neat, nicely cross-referenced laboratory notebook. I applaud the principle; it is the practice that is anathema to me. So do I leave keeping record of what I do to my memory cells and hope for the best? Of course not.

A Sort of Insurance Policy

There is no question at all; we all need to keep an accurate written record of our scientific work. Such a record will guide us as we write our theses and manuscripts. If we do it well (which isn't the same thing as meticulously), it will also serve the purpose of letting someone else understand our research strategies if they need to reproduce the work later. A lab notebook is also a sort of insurance policy for the principled scientist, helping resolve any claims of scientific fraud or misconduct. Finally, intellectual property law requires clear evidence of the date of invention, and such evidence could be crucial in a disputed patent application.

What I find so unappealing in keeping a lab notebook is the idea that it should be overly neat and orderly, as some people's are. For one, keeping up a document to a scribe's standard can become such a chore that you end up jotting down your experiments on scraps of paper and put off "writing it up" in your notebook for days and even weeks. Yet this is not my main objection to the "neat-and-tidy" approach to notebook-keeping.

My main objection is that a neat-and-tidy lab notebook just doesn't reflect my experience of how science happens day to day. For me, the most exciting science progresses unpredictably and is inherently spontaneous. This can often mean frantic scribbling and jotting down exciting suggestions for the next experiments, not to mention a number of, should I say, frustrated comments written down when things do not turn out quite as one had planned.

I don't know about you, but many of my best, and certainly my most memorable, experiments have not been the ones that I did slowly and meticulously but the ones I did almost too fast when I couldn't quite contain my excitement. I am not sloppy, but, not being a naturally patient person, I try to cut the boredom factor to a minimum by working a bit faster than some. I also find that I make many more mistakes if I get agitated by hour after hour of mind-numbing boredom. In my view, a rapidly scrawled expression of joy with multiple exclamation marks tells a more informative story to any patent lawyer about the process of invention than any neatly highlighted understatement, assuming the basic facts are also included (and legible).

If I were scrutinising someone else's lab notebook, I would be a little surprised, if not a bit suspicious, if there was no evidence of the author showing a little excitement about their results. Still, that is a matter of personality type, and I should not criticise other people's style. If you wish to keep a perfectly neat, understated lab notebook, that's fine with me.

When I started out in science, I was both instructed and encouraged to fill my lab notebook with every thought and every imaginable deed. I stuck in vague, ill-considered ideas, e-mails I had printed out--you name it and it could be found there. Every page was dated, cross-referenced, and indexed. Back then it seemed like I was starting a new notebook every couple of weeks. With hindsight, I now see that it was a total waste of effort, all those fruitless pilot experiments and half-baked ideas filling pages and pages I would never read again, nor would anyone else. I was amassing a small library of rubbish with a few important gems buried within.

Finding the important things became hard even with my detailed filing system. With everything lying in paper form deep inside my lab notebook, I started to become paranoid about losing it; I once spent hours photocopying all the pages as a record to keep in a safe place. The boredom induced by that absurd exercise finally forced my hand. It was time for a change. I started a new job and, at the same time, a new lab notebook. Here at last was the clean sheet I needed. From now on, things would be different.

The first things to go were the half-baked ideas. These, I decided, belong in my head or maybe on a special list of half-baked ideas. Until I can use them to formulate a testable hypothesis and a course of experimentation--at which point they may strut proudly into the pages of my lab notebook--that is where they'll stay.

Our Brains Filter Out Rubbish

The fact is, much of what I had previously written down I had forgotten about anyway. If you can't find it and you don't remember it, what's the point of writing it down? I learned to trust myself with my own ideas and not be so fearful that I might forget them. Unlike lab notebooks, our brains have a way of filtering out the rubbish, even if we don't consciously know it's rubbish. Amazing things, brains.

Out went the e-mails, the photocopied protocols, and the other associated junk. I now operate a stripped-down, spare, and much more useful lab book. Everything possible is kept on my PC, which is backed up on the server every night: protocols, image files, data in spreadsheets, to-do lists, the works. I find searching my computer much easier than thumbing through my lab notebook. Also, I can type faster than I can write and having my methods recorded in an instantly transferable medium is extremely useful in itself when interacting with colleagues and collaborators and when writing grants and manuscripts. Electronic lab notebook software might not yet be in widespread use, but maybe its day is coming fast!

You might well ask what's now left in my lab notebook. It's merely a log of what happened when, and how I did it. It contains, in strict chronological order, a brief record of what experiments I conducted, including any changes to the protocol (stored on my PC), and the results. This slimmed-down book means I don't have to waste hours every week neatly writing lengthy prose describing every detail of what I have done. It's legible and fulfils all the criteria that any lab notebook should meet, not least that someone else could pick it up and repeat what I did, but it's also quick, easy, and saves me a whole load of stress.

Of course, identifying what detail warrants notation is a major part of what you learn during your Ph.D. and beyond. There is also no doubt that whenever you enter a new line of research, it is hard to know what matters. So, sometimes, taking meticulous notes might make sense. Give yourself the time to get comfortable with the field. In the meantime, experience will teach you to identify what is important faster.

The moral of the story: Don't treat your lab notebook as a dumping ground. Think of if more like a ship's log: brief to the point of being terse, but containing all the salient information and something that is not the bane of your life.