Lab Notebooks

Maintaining a Good Lab Notebook

What is a lab notebook?

A lab notebook is a detailed record of all experimental work performed in the laboratory. This includes study rationale, materials, methods, models, raw experimental data of all kinds, including incorrectly performed work, interpretations, calculations, conclusions, and proposed next steps. It may be the only record of the work that you have done. If you are the only individual conducting the research, then your notebook may be the only record of your work that exists. As such, it is an irreplaceable and extremely valuable document. It must be organized, complete, and useful.

Why is it important to keep a lab notebook?

A lab notebook is necessary so that future workers may repeat work performed by a previous researcher. It is also necessary for verification in the event that results are unclear or called into question by any source at any time. In addition, clear laboratory notebook records are essential to document intellectual property, technology transfer, and patent issues. From a legal standpoint, a lab entry should be able to prove certain facts, such as the conception of an idea, the testing of a model, and the results of the test. If you apply for a patent, it may be desirable to prove whether or not an invention occurred in the course of a specific research project.

Who should keep a lab notebook and where should it be kept?

Each member of the lab, including the principal investigator (PI), postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, technicians, undergraduates, and visiting members of the lab should maintain a lab notebook. The notebook should be stored in the research area. Notebooks are the guts of the lab and stay with the lab and PI when a lab member leaves the lab.

What material is acceptable for creating a lab notebook?

You should use a bound notebook with numbered pages, not loose-leaf. Do not tear out or skip pages. Do not use scratch paper to record data. When making notes, you should always use waterproof ink, not pencil or erasable ink. You should consider making copies of the notebook and storing them off site, in the event of a fire, flood, or similar disaster.

What details are important in creating and maintaining a lab notebook?

You should label your lab notebook with your name, position, your PI’s name, the title of the study, dates, and volume number, if applicable. Consider creating a table of contents. If your experiments continue into another notebook, make a note at the end of the first one about where the data continues, start a new notebook labeled "Study XXX Volume 2" as appropriate, write in Volume 2 that it is a continuation from Volume 1, and indicate where Volume 1 is located.

You should keep a separate notebook or series of notebooks for each distinct study. You should record each step in an experiment in enough detail so that someone with a similar skill set could perform the experiment based on the notes in the notebook. It should be possible to write a paper using the data in the notebook as the only source.

If you use a protocol multiple times, you may refer to the original page where the details were recorded, but be sure to note any changes, no matter how minor, whenever the protocol is repeated. At the beginning of each experiment, you should write a brief description of what the experiment was designed to test or examine.

When applicable, you should number, label, and date all experiments, animals, specimens, etc. to eliminate ambiguity. At the end of the experiment, record any conclusions and indicate your next steps. If the experiment does not continue onto the next page for whatever reason, indicate on which page continuation of that experiment may be found. Indicate on the continuation page that it is continued from page X.

Label everything, such as lanes of gels, animal treatments, etc. You should record all raw data and show original raw data whenever possible (i.e. photographs of gels, counts from a scintillation counter, cell counts, etc.).

You should show any calculations using the raw data as well. Record and retain all data, even negative data or data collected from an experiment performed incorrectly (along with a corresponding explanation).

It is a good idea to use the notebook to detail where unique samples are stored in the lab, such as where in the freezer a certain clone is stored, etc.

What about data that cannot be stored in the lab notebook?

If data is to be stored outside the lab notebook (i.e. large autorad films, digital images, specimens, etc.), you should indicate in the lab notebook where that data or item is stored, and the data or item should be labeled clearly so that its details may be easily found in the corresponding lab notebook.

How should mistakes be corrected?

You should not black out, erase, or cover up any data. If you need to modify original data, draw a single line through it and write corrections nearby with an explanation.

Should another investigator review my lab notebook?

Yes. To validate your records, another investigator should look over the entries in your lab book as frequently as possible. He or she should place his or her initials at the end of each entry, with the date (as near as possible to the date of the entry). The witness must not be a joint inventor.